Site Loader

Today, in the second part of our “Get Out of the Count?” series, we examine the arguments in favor of encouraging immigrants to participate in the census, as well as some of the reason immigrants might be cautious about participating.

The Get Out the Count Campaign

The work to “get out the count” is often elevated as the sine qua non of social service. Multiple organizations justify their efforts with a few central themes; namely, that the census allows for “the fair distribution of political representation,” “informed, inclusive and effective decision making,” and “equitable allocation of more than $600 billion in federal funds” (give or take $300 billion — Census Outreach says the total is $700 billion, the National League of Cities points to “more than $800 billion,” and NPR cites “around $900 billion”).

Put in starker terms, “[a]n inaccurate 2020 census can lead to more than a decade of underrepresentation and underinvestment in communities that have been historically undercounted” (para. 4), explains the Council of Michigan Foundations. “Your active engagement is needed now, more than ever.” Indeed, continues David Biemesderfer of the United Philanthropy Forum, incomplete census data threatens nothing less than “to muffle the voices of undercounted groups and regions, and undermine the basic political equality that is central to our democracy” (2017, para. 5). Perhaps California Gov. Gavin Newsom summarized it best when he said, “if you don’t participate in the census, Trump wins” (2019, para. 12).

The threats to an accurate census are growing, according to these organizations. Although response rates among U.S. Census Bureau surveys have been declining across the board for a number of years (see here and here), many in the nonprofit sector cite new changes to the census that could further shrink response rates. These include an ill-planned shift to online surveying, budget cuts in the Census Bureau, and the Trump administration’s attempt to add a question on citizenship. But at the heart of philanthropists’ concerns are those “hard-to-survey populations” mentioned above. It is these groups’ nonparticipation — for many reasons — that most concerns “get out the count” campaigns.

Particularly for undocumented immigrants, explains Gary Bass, executive director of the Bauman Foundation, “in an environment of deportations and a lack of trust in government, people may be unwilling to fill out the census” (para. 2).

“Get out the count” campaigns rest on two fundamental beliefs: 1) philanthropy works hand-in-hand with the state, or at least those components of the state it agrees with; and 2) when it comes to data, more is better.

Regarding the first belief, Ferris and James (2012) found:

“There is growing evidence that foundations of various types and scale are taking active steps to engage with government on a more formalized and continuous basis. At the same time, governments are exploring new ways to leverage philanthropic assets and to advance innovative solutions to public problems in the context of spiraling budget deficits that are compelling governments to ‘do more with less’” (p. 3).

Ferris, J. M., & Williams, N. P. O. (2012) p. 3

And regarding the second belief, calls for more and better data are ubiquitous in the philanthropy sector today. The claims regarding data’s potential to effect positive change are breathtaking: “data-driven solutions” can apparently include everything from a country without homelessness and unemployment to a world at peace — and do so at a cut rate.

Within this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that many in the philanthropy sector should step forward to support the federal government’s efforts to survey the entire U.S. population. And step forward in a big way: current figures suggest the sector’s contributions to the census effort have ballooned since 2010. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, foundations are estimated to contribute $40 million to direct census work alone; in the runup to the 2010 census, the philanthropy sector contributed $30 million to support all census efforts in general. But when it comes to undocumented immigrants, especially, this support seems to ignore many immigrants’ lived experiences.

“Securing the homeland”

Since its earliest days, U.S. immigration policy has been an exercise in nativism. Congress’s first foray into immigration law was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, making good on a joint congressional committee’s warning that the “Pacific Coast had to become ‘either American or Mongolian.’” The committee then echoed its Brazilian contemporaries when it explained further that there is not “sufficient brain capacity in the Chinese race to furnish motive power for self-government (Daniels, 2004, p. 18).”

In the intervening years, the federal government has deviated little from an exclusionary stance. As historian Roger Daniels (2004) writes,

“While the Department of Agriculture spoke for farmers, the Department of Labor spoke for working people, and the Forest Service looked out for the trees, the immigration service, which became the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1933, lobbied against the interests of legal immigrants, especially those of color and those who seemed to them un-American.”

Daniels, R. (2004) p. 18

Indeed, consider the situation of the U.S. immigration bureaucracy within the federal government: between 1940 and 2003 the agency was housed in the Department of Justice, when it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the INS, explained in 2001, “the dominant culture of the agency . . . [is] rooted in a view of immigration as a source of security and law enforcement vulnerability more than of continuing nation building” (Bloemraad, 2005, p. 870). This inward-looking, defensive position remains unchanged 20 years after Meissner spoke. As the then-director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, L. Francis Cissna, explained in a 2018 interview,

“Who does the agency serve? […] I think there’s been misunderstanding of that over the years. I think it’s a natural — people kind of naturally fall into the belief that the individuals that we serve are the people that we interact with every day when we take applications or petitions. I don’t think we serve them. We serve the people. We serve the American people, who have conferred upon the agency a special mission through the Congress to administer these immigration laws.”

Para. 24

USCIS actions since Cissna took over the agency — which included separating immigrating children and parents and subsequently losing the children in a labyrinthine foster care system; illegally imprisoning potential asylees; deporting tens of thousands of undocumented residents already living in the United States; and establishing a “denaturalization task force” — confirm that the agency certainly does not serve immigrants. There are virtually no systematic efforts by the federal government to incorporate non-refugee immigrants into U.S. civic life. When the state intervenes in an immigrant’s life, it is to act punitively, as an enforcer.

Unfortunately, immigrants living in the United States do not have the luxury of considering only these alleged benefits of participating in the census. The USA’s history of exclusionary laws targeting immigrants, and the Department of Homeland Security’s current punitive attitude toward immigration, means that immigrants also have to consider the individual risks they and their families might incur if they participate in the census. Organizations and agencies which encourage immigrants to participate in the census have an ethical obligation to understand the risks which they are encouraging those immigrants to incur, and our next installment will consider those risks in further detail.

Authors: Aaron Yore-Van Oosterhout & Christopher Boies, Esq.


  • Bloemraad, I. (2005). The limits of de Tocqueville: How government facilitates organisational capacity in newcomer communities. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 31(5), 870.
  • da Cunha, E. (1944). Rebellion in the Backlands, trans. Samuel Putnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Daniels, R. (2004). Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang.
  • Ferris, J. M., & Williams, N. P. O. (2012). Philanthropy and government working together: The role of Offices of Strategic Partnerships in public problem solving. Retrieved from
  • Loveman, M. (2007) Blinded like a state: The revolt against civil registration in nineteenth-century Brazil,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49(1), 5, 22.

Post Author: Christopher Boies

We are inviting you to join our #GivingTuesdayNow campaign by making a donation and sharing your commitment to immigrant justice with your friends. What makes our fundraising efforts especially important is that we are participating in the #Nonprofit Matching-Fund Initiative which means your dollars are supplemented by available match funds on both national and statewide levels. Help us gain momentum and donate today!