As the Census Bureau opens Utah offices, it says immigrants need not fear participating

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elesi Adele Schwenke performs a Hawaiian dance of "Tausala UT," at the grand opening the new Salt Lake City Area office for the U.S. Census Bureau, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

South Salt Lake • The blessing was pronounced in Goshute. Part of a speech was in Samoan. Asian and Polynesian dancers and musicians performed. Some officials in charge were Latino. About every possible local racial or religious minority seemed to have a representative.

They gathered Tuesday to officially open the U.S. Census Bureau’s new Salt Lake County office and launch its efforts to count all residents in next year’s census — especially often hard-to-count minorities.

“It gives us voice,” said Virgil Johnson, former tribal chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, before he blessed Utah’s census efforts. “That voice then gives us representation” as the government divides money, draws political districts and uses data for planning.

“We are a very diversified community now,” he said. “We as Native Americans who have been here aboriginally, we welcome our brothers and sisters to this great land. May we all become successful.”

The celebratory atmosphere comes as Trump administration has aggressively moves to deport or block new immigrants — including a failed attempt to add a census question asking if respondents are U.S. citizens. Those efforts have made many local migrants fear that participating in the census might lead to their removal from the country.

Cathy Lacy, regional director for the Census Bureau in 12 western states, sought to calm such fears. “This census is important, it’s easy and it is indeed safe.”

She stressed that all Census Bureau workers take an oath of confidentiality, and by law cannot share the personal information they collect with anyone or any other governmental agency — including immigration officials.

“It means if we breach that confidentiality, then we can be imprisoned or fined,” she said. “I don’t have $250,000 and neither do most of the employees that are working for us.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Census Bureau Regional Director Cathy Lacy, says a few words at the grand opening the new Salt Lake City Area office for the U.S. Census Bureau, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson noted that the U.S. Constitution requires counting all residents, not just citizens, in the census every 10 years.

She said new immigrants have “equal rights when it comes to census participation, and that is very powerful. … There is no difference between me as a fifth-generation Utahn … and a new family that may still be looking for a permanent place to live.”

West Valley City Council member Jake Fitisemanu, who delivered part of his speech in Samoan, said concerns about undercounting people date back to the first census in 1790, when he noted that all of the nation’s largest cities were smaller in population than West Valley City is now. West Valley City is estimated to have more than 136,000 residents.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Valley City Councilman Jake Fitisemanu says a few words at the grand opening the new Salt Lake City Area office for the U.S. Census Bureau, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

“There was this confusion about how to count enslaved people or Native American people or a few folks who had immigrated from other countries, or whether those people should be even counted at all,” he said. “It’s kind of wild to think that even though we’ve been doing the census now for over 200 years, the same dynamics that contribute to undercounts persist today.”

The Census Bureau plans to send postcards to most Utahns in March, inviting them to respond to the census online — or by calling phone numbers listed. Residents in some remote areas, such as Indian reservations where some do not have a formal address, will be visited in person by census takers.

For those who fail to respond to initial invitations, the Census Bureau will send out a small army of workers to try to contact them door-by-door. That effort will be directed locally out of the new office. But that is expensive, so officials will be pushing hard for people to self-respond.

Richard Colby, the area census office manager, invited Utahns to apply for hundreds of openings as temporary census workers. They may apply online at 2020census.gov/jobs. The pay is $17 an hour. Workers become part of the largest deployment of civil servants across the country.

“Together, we’ll make Utah count,” Colby said.

The Census Bureau is opening 248 local offices across the country, including two in Utah. Those offices in South Salt Lake and Orem both had grand opening ceremonies Tuesday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Richard Colby, Area Census Office Manager says a few words at the grand opening the new Salt Lake City Area office for the U.S. Census Bureau, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.