to Fear in Census
By Cruz M. Bustamante
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 ö violating housing codes ö 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 ö 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
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 ö at your church, your school, and in your neighborhood
ö 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.
M. Bustamante is Lieutenant Governor of California and a Presidential Appointee
to the U.S. Census Monitoring Board