Residents, officials and businesses seek participation in the 2020 census

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Some people say they do not care about the 2020 census. Others say they are concerned about their privacy and want to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement and immigration officials.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of people say they distrust government, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, earlier this year. 

Hussein Ahmed of Detroit reads a flyer about the 2020 Census at a Nov. 20 meeting in Dearborn. People interested in applying for jobs helping with the population count learned more about it at the event.

Will those with trust issues be counted next year as part of the 23rd U.S. Census?

Government officials, business organizations, community activists, clergy and others across Metro Detroit have been working to make certain they are tallied.

Five months before each home receives an invitation to participate, online, by phone or mail, efforts have been underway to assure the participation of all residents. The U.S. Census Bureau intends to send a letter or official to every residence by April 1.

“You chose a weeknight to come and dedicate your time to the betterment of your community, and that is what you’re doing” said Hassan Sheik, the deputy director of Economic and Community Development Department in Dearborn, standing before about 100 people at a census kick-off last month in the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center.

“So I want everyone to give themselves a round of applause for that please," said Sheik, generating an enthusiastic response.

The count is used, in part, to determine congressional voting districts and the allocation of government spending and resources on roads, schools, hospitals and more.

The current 14 seats for Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives is the lowest since 1933. From 1963 to 1983, Michigan had enjoyed 19 seats.

In all municipalities, the census has a direct impact, measurable in dollars. Dearborn officials estimate the city receives about $1,800 for each person counted.

Census data is used to help distribute about $28 billion annually in special education grants and Title 1 assistance for disadvantaged children alone.

But many residents, especially immigrants, are reluctant to participate. Officials and residents say community groups, especially, are important to overcoming fears.

"There is a lot of apprehension we are trying to bridge, to make the people understand the process, that it is to their benefit, and we would like to educate them about it," said Dr. Adhid Miri, who is working in the Chaldean community to raise awareness of the census.

Zaineb A. Hussein, Wayne County Director of Diversity & Inclusion, gives her remarks during the 2020 Census educational event in Dearborn.

“The Chaldean community, especially the generation that has come here since regime change in Iraq in 2003, have not really experienced censusing. So most people are not familiar with the process.

“And they are suspicious of the process because there are questions. Many of them who maybe are naturalized citizens or they don’t have permanent residency, yet, they fear these questions because they think it is going to infringe on their immigration status.

“It does not; this is strictly a count."

According to the Pew in March, only 17% of Americans surveyed say they could trust government at least most of the time. 

That is a dramatic drop from 1958, two years before the 1960 census, when 73 percent of Americans surveyed said they could trust the government "just about all of the time" or "most the time," according to Pew. Six years later, the number had grown to 77 percent.

Miri said it's important for people who are trusted in diverse communities, such as prominent people and those staffing in churches, temples and mosques, to participate in getting people counted.

Much of last month's kick-off event in Dearborn included assurances about the confidentiality of answers provided the U.S. Census Bureau, along with expressions of hope, and plans revealed, for obtaining a thorough count.

“By working together with community partners, we can have a successful census, to make sure we receive federal funding for things like social service programs, education, roads and public safety — aspects that affect the day-to-day lives of all of our residents,” Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly Jr. said.

The U.S. Census Bureau is offering temporary jobs as recruiting assistants, census takers, office and supervisory staff, and encouraging participation, including by members of traditionally undercounted communities, including recent immigrants and African Americans.

The jobs pay $15 to $24.50 per hour and are available through the U.S. Census Bureau and some community organizations.

Volunteers who are considered “trusted voices” will also be dispatched to encourage participation.

“I spoke to a group of 15- and 16-year-olds over at ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) earlier today, and they are going to be volunteers who are going out into their community to talk to their neighbors about the census,” said Linda Clark, a representative of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’re hoping that program will be successful in trying to reach the individuals. This is very critical, especially in communities where there is distrust of government or communities where people do not believe that their information will remain confidential.”

A survey recently conducted by the Census Bureau determined that apathy, privacy, concern about possible consequences and distrust of government are the four major reasons people do not participate.

But, federal law, Title XIII of the U.S. Code, mandates all information collected in the census remains private, and Clark reminds residents that census workers take an oath to uphold the law.

Linda Clark of the U.S. Census Bureau gives information and answers questions about the Census at the Dearborn event.

“Your name and your address are not going to the U.S. president or anyone else for that matter,” she said. “We are looking at numbers. Remember, the census is the statistical arm of the government.”

President Donald Trump has sought to require participants to declare whether they are citizens. But Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court halted the initiative. In a 5-4 decision, Roberts said administration officials had not provided a properly conceived reason for asking.

But, community officials say, fears remain, especially after crackdowns by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have occurred since the 2010 census.

“We’ve got issues in Southwest Detroit that we want to address,” said Robert Dewaelsche, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association. “We want to break down the language barriers and even misconceptions about the census and where the information goes.

“We have nearly 300 active members, and we will ask them to share the information we communicate to them with their employees, customers and business partners.”

The local Chaldean-American community is also activated.

“The portion of the community that has come here since the regime change in Iraq in 2003, especially, is not familiar with the process,” said Dr. Adhid Miri, who is spearheading a participation initiative on behalf of the Chaldean Community Foundation.

“Many who are naturalized citizens or who don’t have permanent residency, yet, fear these questions because they think it’s going to infringe on their immigration status. But it does not. It is only a count.”

The concerns about fostering participation are not confined to immigrant groups fearing the consequences.

Some people born in the United States are also reticent or indifferent.

The City of Detroit has already canvassed, attempting to gauge participation and identify where there might be problems.

Areas in Downtown, Midtown and Corktown, where residents may be recently settled, showed signs of unawareness or a lack of enthusiasm, according to Victoria Kovari, the director of Detroit 2020 Census Campaign, in Mayor Mike Duggan’s office.

They were the only areas where the survey determined interest in participation was less than 80%, Kovari said.

“I guess the younger you are, or perhaps the more educated or more tech-savvy, the more suspicions you tend to have,” she said. “At least, preliminarily, that’s what we’re looking at.”

Kovari said she believes the city is in front of the participation issues, and that the canvassing itself is among the most thorough before the census.

If the largest barrier to participation is disinterest, she said, it is a problem the city can help remedy through outreach.

“We’re trying to dig into that uninterested piece of it,” she said.