Site Loader

In the final installment in our Get Out of the Count series, we’ll weigh the costs and benefits of encouraging immigrants to participate in the census. First, we will revisit the alleged benefits of participation in the census, evaluating them in light of what we now know about the individual risks which immigrants face if they participate in the census. We will also take a look at how the Census Bureau is addressing these risks, and whether it can be trusted to protect the information, rights, and safety of census respondents.

Benefits Overstated

In addition to understating risk, the “get out the count” campaign overstates the benefits of census participation to undocumented immigrants.

Congressional representation, for one, only theoretically applies to all unnaturalized immigrants — even if data from a citizenship question is not available to systematically exclude them from district apportionment. The notion that congressional apportionment gives voice to noncitizens is problematic. Congresspersons who, by law, must be U.S. citizens cannot reasonably speak for those who cannot vote for their own supposed representation. One could effectively argue that, if congress members did speak for noncitizens, our current immigration system would not look the way it does today.

Other stated benefits to census participation are also dubious. For example, despite loud and frequent claims to the contrary, the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States are simply not eligible for many public benefits touted by “get out the count” campaigners, such as food stamps, non-emergency Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, Children’s Health Insurance, etc.

Moreover, evidence is growing that noncitizens with legal immigration status are increasingly not claiming the benefits to which they are currently entitled. In a trend observed since the earliest months of the current administration, mixed-status immigrant families are forgoing medical treatment rather than risk falling victim to ICE depredations. Data is scattershot, but demonstrates a clear chilling effect of ICE enforcement: a medical clinic in Texas reported a 50 percent increase in appointment cancelations following ICE raids, for example. Across the country, SNAP enrollment has dropped by 10 percent among eligible immigrant families who have lived here fewer than five years. And in Michigan, a team of researchers recently conducted interviews with medical personnel who work with mixed-status families. One staff member explained that immigrant clients “want nothing to do with WIC because of immigration. … They were scared only because it was a government program.” As another staff member explained,

“Sometimes we will ask them if they want to apply for emergency Medicaid. … They think that’s going to affect them maybe one day towards their residency or something. So, I mean, I still tell them that it doesn’t, but a lot of people are like, they’re scared.”

(Para. 17)

These statements should give pause to those hoping to drum up support for the census. If people are not claiming benefits for their U.S. citizen children out of fear of punitive state action, how much less will they be inclined to take a survey and provide their children’s information to the U.S. Census Bureau?

Misplaced Trust?

Finally, the situation of the U.S. Census Bureau as a federal agency — along with its attendant duties and responsibilities to other agencies — places it at the service of the current administration, not the disenfranchised.

For example, the Census Bureau has a constitutional mandate to coerce all U.S. residents to participate, and disregard calls for sensitivity. Thus, the survey will arrive in an envelope marked, “[y]our response is required by law” in both English and Spanish. That same Title 13 that protects personally identifiable data also includes a provision that threatens a fine for nonparticipation. And the Census Bureau recently rejected a recommendation by the Census National Advisory Committee to permit nonresponse of sensitive questions. On the contrary, responded the Bureau, “[i]f someone does not answer the 2020 Census or any other question on the form, they increase the likelihood of an in-person visit from the Census Bureau” (p. 3). That is, if a family fails to answer even one question on the census, a federal employee may come to their home to obtain a response.

Furthermore, regarding the instrument itself, a 10-question, closed-ended survey that seeks demographic and housing data seems a poor instrument to amplify participants’ voices. A few hundred focus groups would likely gauge noncitizen sentiment much more efficiently and accurately.

But perhaps most significantly, the Census Bureau’s legal obligations to other government entities and current data-sharing agreements are problematic. It is by now well known, of course, that the U.S. Census Bureau during World War II assisted the federal government’s efforts to locate Japanese-Americans for detention in internment camps. The Bureau at that time provided detailed maps of 10 U.S. cities across seven states, enumerating the number of Japanese-Americans living in each city block. The Bureau also provided the Secretary of the Treasury with the names and addresses of all Japanese-Americans living within Washington, D.C., at the time. Many groups take pains to point out that data safeguards have been strengthened significantly since then, and that such disclosures would be illegal today.

These safeguards, however, do not preclude the Census Bureau from cooperating with federal agencies in other ways upon request. Soon after the New York City attacks in 2001, for example, the Bureau provided DHS with ZIP code-level data on Americans with Arabic ancestry, sorted by country of family origin. While this disclosure was legal, many found the work unethical due to likely ethnic profiling by DHS. According to an article in The New York Times (2004), the Census Bureau at the time acknowledged these concerns, but ultimately passed responsibility on to recipient of the data. “We do worry about how information will be used,” (para. 5) said the Bureau’s then-deputy director Hermann Habermann. “The only way we can guarantee that no one will ever be harmed by our information is to release nothing. We understand that groups can be affected by what we give out, and we understand that can be sensitive. But that is a societal debate, not a census debate” (para. 19).

Other indications suggest the current Census Bureau administration is equally nonchalant about the state’s scapegoated population du jour. In addition to advocating for the inclusion of a question on citizenship, the Bureau is currently working out a data-sharing agreement with DHS by which it will obtain noncitizens’ immigration status by other means. The Bureau explains that it seeks out such “administrative records” in general to “reduce the burden on respondents, to validate Census’ mapping databases, and to lower the cost of the Census” (p. 1). Indeed, this data will render a citizenship question moot, as the Bureau will already have obtained personally identifiable immigration data elsewhere.

But use of these administrative records is problematic for a few important reasons. First, this particular database from USCIS is notoriously flawed and has resulted in hundreds — and likely thousands — of U.S. citizens becoming entangled in deportation proceedings. Second, this maneuver is an apparent attempt to sidestep any public oversight of the citizenship data debate. On one hand, this methodology may satisfy those whose only concern about the inclusion of the citizenship question is a potential undercount. If the Bureau obtains immigration information from USCIS, perhaps it will drop its pursuit of a citizenship question on the census. But on the other hand, the Census Bureau’s motives for seeking this data remain unclear, and it has not conceded its battle to include a citizenship question. Armed with both a citizenship question and administrative records, the Bureau would be poised to prosecute those participants whose responses do not align with information from the USCIS database. Some commentators point out that the Census Bureau has not seriously prosecuted participants for such offenses since the 1970s, and thus there is little to fear from falsely claiming citizenship on the census. But given the current administration’s zeal in pursuing all possible avenues of prosecution of immigrants, the fact that the Census Bureau has not prosecuted participants in a few decades is not sufficiently reassuring.When asked recently about the adequacy of the U.S. Census Bureau’s privacy protections, former director Kenneth Prewitt said, “I have to be agnostic” (para. 33). Explaining further, he added, “[w]e do know the mood of Washington with respect to immigration. We have an administration that has said we simply have got to get rid of the people who do not belong here” (para. 34).


What if the worst-case scenarios never come to pass?

What if the U.S. Census Bureau zealously guards personally identifiable information, and none of its hundreds of thousands of employees passes along information to ICE? What if it refuses to pass along even ZIP code-level data to DHS regarding participants’ citizenship status, out of an abundance of concern for a vulnerable population? What if no state congress chooses to re-map its legislative districts with respect to citizen population, instead of resident population? What if the current administration drops its pursuit of a citizenship question on the census?

If all members of our current government defy recent maneuvers against immigration and instead choose to let the census pass without incident, we in the nonprofit sector should nonetheless think seriously before lending our support to the government’s efforts. It seems its own injustice to spend money and time asking undocumented immigrants to “offer their voice” in state-sanctioned ways, when we are not sufficiently listening to what many are already saying.

Returning to the civil registry fiasco of 19th-century Brazil, Loveman tells us 

“the quotidian exploitation and impoverishment of Brazil’s rural population [was] all but invisible (or irrelevant) to the eyes of state-builders. The condition of the populace was of concern in the abstract; the ‘improvement of the population’ was frequently the stated end of state policies. But the population’s diverse needs, wants, concerns, and fears did not generally figure in the design or execution of state-building initiatives in the first place.” pp. 10-11

Loveman, M. (2007) pp. 10-11

It is clear that the undocumented immigrant populations’ diverse needs, wants, concerns, and fears are not figuring in either the state’s design or execution of the upcoming census. The nonprofit sector has stepped in to attempt to remedy this blind spot, but this only furthers the state’s own purposes. Returning to Loveman,

“There is no question that censuses […] brought things into states’ view that were previously invisible or obscure. In addition to illuminating existing realities, censuses also changed what states saw by reconstituting, in their own terms, the reality they purported to describe. Legibility projects changed what states could see in part through changing the nature of what it is they did see. While these alterations in how and what the state could see were often dramatic, however, it is not clear that taken as a whole the state’s vision improved with the use of these technologies.”

Loveman, M. (2007) pp. 33-34

In other words, the state sees what it looks for. With today’s embrace and celebration of “Big Data” and “data-driven” everything, the nonprofit sector should take care to maintain a balanced view of the benefits and limits of technocracy. For a state that is bent on uncovering illegality among immigrants — and not just a single administration, but an entire state apparatus built over decades — all immigrants are a potential threat. Helping the state better see noncitizens will not change how the state treats them.

Besides, many immigrants who want to be seen are already publicly speaking out. Activists, writers, performing artists, and others have spoken out about the need to reform our current immigration system. The majority of their congressional representatives have refused to listen. Perhaps by not participating in their own surveillance, noncitizens will speak loudest of all.

Authors: Aaron Yore-Van Oosterhout & Christopher Boies


  • 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: liamadmin

Get Advocate News & Updates by Email:

Join our work. Learn more. Welcoming immigrants through access to legal services, education, and advocacy: