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Pitfalls of Philanthropic and Nonprofit Support for the 2020 U.S. Census

In January 1852, thousands of people in Brazil’s rural stretches violently resisted the civil servants who had come to register their births and deaths. Authorities described hundreds of rioters armed with anything they could find, converging on small settlements and threatening to murder anyone who attempted to carry out the registry. The Brazilian military stepped in, but the uprisings ceased only when the civil registry — along with the census set to take place later that year — was canceled. Brazil would not carry out a general census or successful civil registry for decades afterward.

Lawmakers and other urban elite viewed this rejection of state surveillance as evidence of backwardness. In their estimation, the more a state could “see” its constituents, the better it could govern — those who opposed surveillance instruments such as the census simply did not know what was good for them. As one commentator said, the typical rural resident “did not display the faintest trace of a political intuition,” as this was “beyond the reach of his intelligence” (da Cunha, 1944, p. 160).

On the contrary, rural residents’ experience with the state was beyond the grasp of lawmakers. Those who rebelled against the civil registry decree were reacting to a rumor that this new measure was a “law of captivity.” Slavery was then legal in Brazil, and free people of color feared civil registry was simply a façade. As the scholar Mara Loveman (2007) explains,

“The rumor resonated, in turn, because the rural poor knew from experience that they were vulnerable to capricious state action. The state had long been in the business of depriving the free poor of their freedom, through forced recruitment into the army. [… Illegal] enslavement of free persons by corrupt provincial officials did occasionally occur. […] No matter that it was illegal and, most likely, relatively uncommon; that the enslavement of free poor of color by agents of the state was known to happen at all would certainly have contributed to making the rumors surrounding [the civil registry decree] believable. The argument made by supporters of the decree, that civil registration could only help support the freedom of the free by giving them proof of their free status, did little to ameliorate the situation [emphasis added].

Loveman, M. (2007) p. 27

In important ways, the nonprofit sector’s support of the 2020 U.S. census risk echoing this blindly technocratic approach, especially concerning undocumented immigrants.

As the census nears, many observers have warned about a severe undercount, exacerbated particularly by nonparticipation among immigrants of all legal status. Numerous philanthropic and nonprofit organizations have stepped in as a result, to complement the U.S. Census Bureau’s efforts to encourage all residents of the United States to participate. Incomplete data, according to these supporters, will have devastating consequences on the very people most unlikely to participate. “As funders,” said one supporter, we must “think about how we can help people see how the census could be a form of empowerment” (para. 1).

But immigrants without legal status may not, in fact, be empowered by the U.S. census, and we would do well not to dismiss their fear of participation as baseless or misguided. Immigrants of all legal statuses have inarguably been “vulnerable to capricious state action” in the past few years (and for decades before that), and those without legal status, particularly, have a great deal to fear from the state. Asking an undocumented immigrant to take the census in 2020 is tantamount to asking a fugitive to come out and take a survey, and then ask for her name, address, and information about her children.

The nonprofit sector is thus caught in a dilemma. Many in the sector serve as advocates for the disenfranchised. From this perspective, it makes perfect sense to invest money — even millions of dollars — in efforts to ensure that the federal government “sees” all residents and distributes adequate resources to each state. Calls to abandon the “get out the count” campaign may be perceived as playing into the hands of the state. But the evidence is undeniable that the government seeks to do harm to millions of residents, and use the census to do so. Even if the government is ultimately unsuccessful in these efforts, perhaps it is time to focus efforts on more immediate aid to those in need.

In the weeks to come we’ll examine the potential benefits and risks of encouraging undocumented immigrants to take the 2020 census in order to reach a clearer understanding of what is at stake in this controversy. The next installment of our “Get Out of the Count?” series will look at the major arguments in favor of “getting out the count” and encouraging immigrants to participate in the census. . . and some of the reasons they might not want to participate.

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

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