Immigrants have no need to fear citizenship question, Census Bureau director assures Utah audience

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steven Dillingham, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, speaks at the Kem Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City on Tuesday May 7, 2019.

Immigrants should not fear that they could somehow be deported for answering a proposed census question next year about their citizenship status, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told a Utah audience Tuesday.

“Federal laws say that we will never in our lifetime reveal confidential information,” including how specific individuals answer that question, he told a morning newsmaker breakfast at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

“If we do, we can well go to prison for an extended period of time as well as pay a $250,000 fine, and I’m not up to either one of those,” he said.

Later in the day, he again told state and local officials in a separate meeting that census data cannot and will not be used to assist deportation. “We do not share it with any law enforcement agency, period. That is prohibited by law. So there is no basis for that kind of fear.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by late next month whether the citizenship question is legally allowed. Critics sued contending it will lead many immigrants to avoid the census and create an inaccurate count. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross attempted to add it at the request of the Justice Department, which said it will help enforce civil rights and voting laws.

Latino leaders in Utah say many undocumented immigrants, refugees and even legal immigrants worry it could somehow lead to deportation in today’s polarized political climate on undocumented immigration. Some precedence for that concern exists because in World War II, Congress temporarily changed laws about census privacy to assist in the effort to put people of Japanese descent into concentration camps.

Utah Latino leaders have said some talk even exists of encouraging everyone in the local Latino community not to answer the citizenship question to show solidarity with marginalized groups.

“We hear some of those concerns,” Dillingham said. “But I will say that the Latino community is extremely supportive of getting a complete count.”

He said the agency is working with immigrant and other hard-to-count groups, aiming to have them deliver the message to their members that responding to the census is safe and may bring more federal money that is based on population.

“We will be arm-in-arm with those organizations,” Dillingham said. “We hope that when people really learn of the protections we have in place, and that their fears may be unfounded, then we hope that we can get more full support from those communities.”

Cathy Lacy, regional director of the Census Bureau who appeared with Dillingham, listed some other reasons to help calm fears about the citizenship question.

We are not asking, ‘Are you here legally or illegally?’ We’re just asking, ‘Are you a citizen?’” she said. Many noncitizens live in the country legally, including people working toward citizenship, international students here with a visa and refugees. The Constitution requires counting all long-term residents in the census, not just citizens.

Lacy said even though her Denver-based region covers 12 states including Utah, “I never see anyone’s entry at all. … Neither does anyone else” because of privacy laws. “Our reputation for our service is based on our ability to protect this information.”

Dillingham said that while the once-every-10-year census has not asked about citizenship since 1950, annual surveys that his bureau conducts have included such questions since 2005.

“We have more than 40 million households that have responded to that question” without leading to any problems with immigration enforcement by respondents, he said.

“This bureau has a history since World War II of protecting” confidentiality, he said. “Congress has passed new very stringent laws and this group here will go to prison if we violate confidentialities.”

Dillingham said his agency will also conduct surveys this summer — some with the citizenship question, and some without — to see how it affects response rates. He said it will also help his agency figure what messages it needs to deliver and where to address any problems.

Dillingham also said the Census Bureau is working diligently to include all hard-to-count groups in Utah from the homeless to people living in remote parts of American Indian reservations. That includes working with tribal leaders about how best to identify and reach their members and identifying shelters and soup kitchens where the homeless could be reached.

“Everyone matters and everyone should be counted,” he said.

This is the first time that most people will be asked to respond to the census via internet, after receiving a postcard invitation with instructions. Lacy noted people will also be given the chance to respond by telephone, and eventually by paper if they do not respond to initial invitations.

Lacy said the Census Bureau is in the process of hiring about 1,000 temporary workers in Utah to help follow up with people who do not respond to initial invitations — and that is challenging because of low unemployment rates where fewer people are looking for jobs. Dillingham said the bureau is hiring more than 500,000 helpers nationally.

“Our mission is to count every person living in the United State once, only once, and in the right place,” Dillingham said. “We are confident we can accomplish this with flying colors.”