The Undocumented and the Census Undercount

If you fail to fill out and return your census form you do not exist as far as government social services are concerned.  For several years I have been reminding students that if they don’t vote they forfeit having a voice in the democratic process.  On December 15, at a panel on the census undercount, sponsored by Demos, I was reminded of something far more primal. If you don’t fill out the census, you do not count; you do not exist.  I never thought before of the census being a matter of ontology, but it is, at least in a civil society sort of way.

This is the mobilizing cry coming from the census bureau, and it’s a good one.  Bare bones survival trumps democratic participation, and if you are poor, and do not exist as far as social services are concerned, survival becomes a real challenge.

Here’s the argument:

Is the census undercount a problem? Yes. In 2000 about 4.5 million people, mostly black and Hispanic, were not counted. Why is this a problem? For starters, $400 billion dollars is at stake. This is the amount of federal funding that is targeted to communities around the country on the basis of census returns.  These funds go to such diverse social services as Medicaid, federal transportation funding, and Title I funding to public schools.  Everything from the digital divide to emergency room funding is impacted by the census.

If undocumented immigrants do not fill out the form, the undercount means their communities receive less funding than would be suggested by an accurate count. Where undocumented immigrants live in concentrated numbers, in cities, colonias, suburbs and rural areas, this is a real problem.

Why don’t undocumented immigrants fill out the census form? Fear stemming from the past and fear of the present/future.  During the 1940s, the federal government released confidential census bureau about Japanese Americans, but it did so in response to existing law, the Second War Powers Act. Margo Anderson and Bill Seltzer have written extensively on the topic. They argue convincingly that the term “confidentiality” is an evolving concept, and that during the 1940s, the existing census law did not contain the air tight confidentiality assurances that presently exist in the U.S. Code Title XIII.   Under Title XIII data can only be released in a statistical manner, and personal information is exempt from FOIA or court subpoena.

Although Anderson and Seltzer’s analysis also hints at a government conspiracy responsible for breaching confidentiality, and as Peter Irons and others have documented, the State Department during FDR’s war years was severely compromised by racists and anti semites, I know of no credible claims about the government compromising census data in the present day.

But that doesn’t stem the fear, particularly when the census bureau plans strategy for the 2010 count in neighborhoods where ICE has mobilized raids against undocumented residents, which is what happened recently in East Harlem, according to participants at the Demos sponsored event at Hunter College on the census Undercount (December 15, 2009)

As census bureau officials at the event as well as representatives from Demos, Drum Major Institute, and the Leadership Conference suggest, the best way to get members of the undocumented community involved in this process, which is in their interest, is to work through trusted community leaders and non governmental organizations.

I have studied the mobilization of the undocumented community in May 2006 (See Immigration and American Democracy: Subverting the Rule of Law), and am quite aware of  the great success that can be achieved when agencies representing hispanic and the undocumented community purposively organize along common interest.  A mobilization last seen in 2006 would fight the undercount and give undocumented communities a good deal more of their share of social services throughout the country.


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