Pilar Marrero

The 2020 census is this year’s most empowering and democratic event for the United States.

As ordered by the U.S. Constitution, the census counts everyone living in the country, no matter who they are: the undocumented, the transient, people living in remote areas or off the grid, foreign students and embassy personnel. The only people here who don’t count for the census are tourists and short-time business visitors.

The year 2020 also includes presidential elections that will set the country’s future course. But whereas not everyone can vote, everyone can and should participate in the census. It determines everything from political representation to access to basic services like education and health care and highways that work for all.

Recent estimates peg the amount of federal spending that is directed by census data at more than $1.4 trillion annually.

“Given that the House of Representatives is apportioned based on the population of each state, our ability to have representatives in Congress depends on all of us being counted,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

The census is a self-portrait of the nation. The U.S. Constitution requires that the federal government count everyone living in the country every 10 years. Counting everyone means everyone: people of all races and ethnic groups, citizens and non-citizens, all adults and all children, regardless of age. There are very few exceptions to this.

Every person who lives in United States territory on April 1 needs to be counted. Short-time visitors aren´t counted but longer-term visitors, such as foreign students and temporary workers, are.

The U.S. Census counts people by their “household,” which includes every person or persons living in a “single living quarter.” Every household will get a unique I.D. number that identifies it, and this is tied to a mailing address or physical structure, not to an individual name or a family.

A household can be made up of one person, or one family and the family friend who lives in a back room, or a group of roommates. At the time of response, all of them, including babies born by April 1, should be included as part of the same household. Again: babies need to be counted. Children age 0-4 were significantly undercounted in 2010 because, among other reasons, people mistakenly believed they didn´t have to be included.

“Please include everybody in the household in the questionnaire,” said NALEO’s  Vargas. “Getting everyone to count is extremely important for our communities.”

All households will have the chance to “self-respond” to the census either by internet, telephone or the “traditional” paper questionnaire that, until now, has been the most common method of collecting census data for more than a century.

Starting March 12, 95 percent of households will get a package in the mail from the Census Bureau. Most people (80 percent) will get a letter with a unique ID inviting them to respond online; 20 percent of homes get a similar letter plus a paper questionnaire in the first mailing. The mailings will be sent in four waves (March 12, 13, 19 and 20).

When the Census Bureau does not hear from a household in the self-response phase, which starts March 12 and ends April 30, there will be a follow-up operation to try to get everyone else counted. That includes door-to-door visits, conducted from May 9 until the end of July.

By law, the Census Bureau may not share personally identifiable information with any other governmental agency (at any level of government), any private business, or any other party outside the Census Bureau, for any reason or purpose.

“We know many people don´t trust this administration to follow the law,” Saenz said, “so MALDEF and others are part of a coalition of organizations and respected leaders who have pledged to step in ‘early and heavy’ if there´s any hint of violation of census data.”  

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