A couple days ago, the Census2020 questionnaire arrived on my doorstep. Actually, my neighbor brought it by because our overworked mailman had dumped several census envelopes intended for our neighborhood into her mailbox; so, Joanne emerged from self-imposed corona isolation to do her civic duty and prompt her neighbors to do theirs. Thank you, good neighbor!

My plumber watched this exchange. He was repairing a leak that had recently ripped a massive tear in the ceiling of our hallway. Ramon is originally from Guatemala. He arrived in the US about 25 years ago as a penniless immigrant, and built a thriving business – carpentry, tiling, painting, gardening, plumbing – Ramon fixes anything that breaks, and in the last ten years, we’ve entrusted almost every home repair to him and his handy team of family and friends.

Do you know about the census? I waved the questionnaire at Ramon. Are you going to answer this?

As it happens, not only did Ramon know about the Census, he had participated in the 2010 enumeration and understood exactly why it mattered.

“Schools, roads, clinics – don’t they depend on it?” he offered, “So, yes.”

That’s great, I replied, what about the other guys? His team were enjoying their lunch break in the unseasonably warm sunshine outside.

“No way. Not going to happen.”

It turns out, not unexpectedly, that several of Ramon’s team were undocumented; several cousins, uncles and nephews work jobs he farms out to them so they can send money to families back home. He confided that they were increasingly anxious about their futures and livelihood, and wary of responding to the census.

Why the wariness? Ramon was honest. A very real fear of an ICE backlash, a police round up, and the risk of deportation stoked by pervasive anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as the specter of the citizenship question – all of which intimidate Ramon’s relatives and many more non-citizens like them.

“But there won’t be a citizenship question,” I reminded him.

No matter, he countered. “They ‘re scared they’ll be sent back.”

It’s a threat that terrifies undocumented individuals and non-citizens from every immigrant community. Uncertainty about immigration policy forces many to stay under the radar, as far as possible from the prying eyes of the authorities. There is every likelihood they will not respond to the census questionnaire or even answer the door to a census taker.

That includes undocumented immigrants from the subcontinent as well. Indians are the second-largest immigrant group after Mexicans, accounting for almost 6 percent of the 43.3 million foreign-born population, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). As of 2015 about 2.4 million Indian immigrants were resident in the United States.

At least 630,000 of those Indians remain undocumented reports SAALT, a national civil rights organization for the South Asian diaspora.

SAALT’s Laksmi Sridharan argues that thousands will be deterred from participating in the census because “South Asians are impacted by the full spectrum of federal immigration policies – from detention and deportation to H-4 visa work authorization and denaturalization to the assault on public benefits,” confirming that “at least 600,000 South Asians in the country are not being counted.”

“An accurate Census 2020 population count is essential to distributing critical federal funding to our communities,” she added, “this means even fewer resources to the communities who need it the most.”

People who elect not to be counted will contribute to the inevitable undercount, projected by the Urban Institute to be at least 4 million people missing from the national headcount.

It poses a serious threat to the 2020 census. An inaccurate count will severely impact vulnerable communities that will lose critical federal funding for educational, health and transportation support that they, their families and communities need.

Apprehension about the safety of personal data drives this lack of participation, with questions ranging from uncertainty about privacy to concerns about cyber security:

  • Can ICE get hold of my details?
  • Is it risky to give away my race or ethnicity?
  • What if DHS learns I’m undocumented – I don’t have papers.
  • What about hackers? Can cyber-attacks compromise my data as it’s collected and processed?

Some respondents are daunted by the legalese on the front of census envelopes that conjure up an underlying dread of law enforcement.

The New York state envelopes demand ‘YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED BY LAW’, while early voting requests from the City of Boston warn in bold red letters “ failure to respond shall result in removal from active voting rolls.”

So, despite repeated reassurances from the Census Bureau that individuals should not worry about the confidentiality of their information, questions about data security linger.

It’s a challenge that the Census Bureau and advocacy organizations across the country are striving to address.

The Census Bureau reiterates on its website and through downloadable fact sheets that Title 13 makes it clear by law, that no personal information can be shared.

However, as an arm of the federal government, messaging from the Census Bureau is still viewed with mistrust. People are more likely to believe ‘trusted messengers’ about whether or not their data will be compromised. So advocacy groups are partnering with local and national coalitions to devise outreach with culturally appropriate messaging for communities of color, non-citizens and foreign-born residents.

SAALT has shared an AAPI guide to reassure South Asians on what census security measures they can expect.

In a teleconference hosted in partnership with Ethnic Media Services on March 13, leading civil rights advocates also shared plans about campaigns to diminish fears, encourage participation and ensure a fair and accurate count of the geographically, culturally and linguistically diverse communities they represent.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AASJ) has launched a 2020 Census HOTLINE (18442020API) or (8442020204) available in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali for anyone with questions or concerns about the upcoming census. “We aim to eliminate all barriers that prevent people from accessing the 2020Census,” said John Yang, AASJ President & Executive Director, and to remind them of legal protections in place.

“In March we will embark on a paid media strategy focusing on making sure Latinos understand, “there is no citizenship question” on the Census, said Lisette Escobedo, Director, NALEO Educational Fund Leadership. A recent study concluded that nearly half of Latinos surveyed expected a citizenship question on the form. Education about what will and will not be on the form is “critical for a full count among Latinos.” It also will address fears about cyber security and data privacy using trusted messengers. In addition, NALEO has launched a digital campaign targeting English dominant Latina millennials who can serve as trusted messengers to help Latino families and communities respond to the census.

Escobedo also described “Train the Trainer” workshops across the country to educate 3500 census ambassadors on the census, including guidelines ensuring cyber security, especially those agencies planning on making devices available to the public. A bilingual Spanish-English Hotline (8773523676) was launched to address all census-related questions including ones about scammers and potential disinformation.

Jeri Green, Senior Advisor at the Urban League, referred to Pew Research and Urban Institute studies which concluded that severe undercounts in black populations were the result of “extreme fear and distrust of the census process.” The Urban League has launched the 2020Census Black Round Table – a coalition of civil rights leaders, clergy, immigrants, state and local officials, and advocates on the forefront of emerging black issues – to mobilize a network of Urban League’s affiliates and town halls to educate black communities about the census, and ensure they “understand their data is safe and confidential.”

“Indian country has the highest undercount at 4.9%,” says Lycia Maddocks, Vice President of External Affairs, National Congress of American Indians. Not only do tribal communities have limited broadband access, but they also are restricting access to their territories. So, the Indian Country Counts campaign is working with almost 1600 coordinators, tribal partners and powerful national organizations (such as the Native American Rights Fund and the National Urban Indian Coalition) with the broadest reach in Indian country, to create messages that resonate.

“We are in a league of our own,” says Ditas Katague, Director of the California Complete Count Office 2020 Census, when it comes to counting all Californians – a state with over 40 million people. The challenges are magnified by the sheer diversity of its population (over 192 languages spoken in LA county alone), distrust in government institutions, and “…over 11 million people considered hard to count – a group larger than the entire state of Georgia.” The state is responding by “investing an unprecedented $187.2 million to reach the hardest to count Californians,” and partnering with more than 120 trusted messengers (local and tribal governments, K-12 schools, community and faith-based organizations, labor unions and media) to encourage hardest to count Californians to participate.

“The core message of our statewide campaign is that participating in the census is safe and secure for all Californians,” states Kataguue. “The census will never ask questions about citizen status, social security number, bank details or payments or donations.”

Beth Lynk, Census Counts Campaign Director of The Leadership Conference Education Fund described Census2020 as an ‘all hands on deck’ moment and an urgent civil rights issue facing the country.

In a democracy where every voice matters whether Indian, Chinese or Latino, Black or Native American, getting vulnerable communities to count themselves in will depend on convincing them to trust in a system they fear.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents.

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at desicollective.media. She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...