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Nothing to Fear in Census
By Cruz M. Bustamante
March 2000

Fear.

That is the primary reason many people, especially members of minority communities, give for not participating in the census.

This fear comes from a number of things. Some immigrants came to America from countries where the government was the greatest of all threats. If government agents were engaging in a mass campaign to reach every resident, the consequences could mean imprisonment, or even death.

Others are afraid of the laws in this country. Some immigrants are undocumented, and are afraid of being jailed or deported. Others are forced to live in overcrowded conditions violating housing codes and are afraid of being evicted. Still others, although completely law-abiding, just don't understand the importance of the census and fear any kind of government involvement in their lives.

It is time to set the record straight.

The census is an initiative mandated by the U.S. Constitution that requires the government to count all people living in the United States citizens, legal residents, and the undocumented. Census questionnaires do not differentiate between legal and illegal residents. Census takers do not care if you were late on your taxes, if you are working on getting your "papers" or if you have unpaid parking tickets. The Census Bureau only wants to know information that is necessary to provide an adequate picture of the America in which we live. Most of all, they want to know how many people are living at your residence on April 1st.

Whatever information the Census Bureau does collect about you they must keep confidential. The Census Act prohibits the release of any individual census answers for any purpose. U.S. law requires that personal data collected for the census must stay private for 72 years. And, any census taker who releases private information gathered in the census will be prosecuted. The penalty for breaking the confidentiality law is up to five years in prison and stiff fines.

Furthermore, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner has guaranteed that "INS officials will not seek or accept any census information provided in violation of the Census Act."

It is time for all of America's residents to shift their focus from negative concerns about confidentiality and begin to recognize the positive benefits of full participation in this once-a-decade event.

The census tells us who we are as a people and allows our democracy to function in a way that is fair to all people. It determines the apportionment of congressional seats for states. It also determines how much money each state gets in federal funds. These funds impact a range of programs from Medi-Cal to foster care.

In the 1990 census, 8.4 million people were left uncounted nationwide. A disproportionate number of those missed were the poor, people of color and children.

We cannot afford a similar undercount this year. The stakes are too high. We owe it to ourselves and to our country to engage our entire community.

Census questionnaires will begin to arrive this month in every household across the country. For those who do not speak English, the form will also be available in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean or Vietnamese. If the form is not returned, a census taker will start knocking on doors to gather the information.

So spread the word at your church, your school, and in your neighborhood that participating in the upcoming census is crucial. Join me in letting people know that there is nothing to fear about the census.

I assure you that any and all personal information obtained in the Census will be kept confidential. It is the law.

Please don't let fear or misunderstanding stop you from participating in the Census. We all benefit from an accurate count.

Cruz M. Bustamante is Lieutenant Governor of California and a Presidential Appointee to the U.S. Census Monitoring Board

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U.S. Census Monitoring Board
Presidential Members
4700 Silver Hill Road
Suite 1250 – 3
Suitland, MD 20746
Phone: (301) 457-9900
Fax: (301) 457-9901
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