Counting on Fear: The 2020 US Census

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Doug Johnson
May 1, 2019

Ten years ago, the federal government was doing what you would naturally expect it to do. With the census to occur in 2010, it was taking seriously its constitutionally mandated charge to enumerate all persons living in the United States. To that end, it was reaching out to community groups and enlisting their help in getting people to fill out the census forms and be counted. Homeboy Industries, which provides job training and other services to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated people, used its resources to encourage people in Boyle Heights and elsewhere in Los Angeles to participate.

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A certificate and letter from the U.S. Census Bureau thanking Homeboy Industries. From the Homeboy Industries Records, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Archives.

Homeboy’s constituents are mostly Latinx and generally have criminal records. Many are also undocumented, as are many residents in the Los Angeles area. Nonetheless, in 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau made a concentrated effort to ensure that these people would be counted and thus would be represented in the political system. As the letter to Homeboy Industries notes, the bureau wanted “a complete and accurate census count” in order to “improve the quality of life in every neighborhood.” It was an admirable effort, but it was not extraordinary: the federal government was merely doing what the U.S. Constitution requires.

Now we live in a much different time. On April 23, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Department of Commerce v. New York, in which the current administration asked the Court to overturn the ruling by Jesse M. Furman, judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, that blocks the addition of a citizenship question to the questionnaire for the 2020 census.1 District courts in California and Maryland have also ruled against inclusion of the question, which asks, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” In his opinion, Furman wrote that the “decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census—even if it did not violate the Constitution itself—was unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons and must be set aside.”2 Furman’s 277-page opinion details the flaws in the administration’s reasoning and lays out the federal procedures that it violated. The judge’s findings, which are based on nearly a century of established law, are complex, but we can recognize, at the very least, that the Constitution demands a count of all people residing in the United States, not a count of citizens. To ask about a resident’s citizenship status will likely dissuade people from participating in the census, especially those who are undocumented. Estimates suggest that as many as 6.5 million people will decline to fill out the questionnaire, resulting in severe undercounts in areas, like Los Angeles, with large immigrant populations.

For the 2010 census, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) partnered with acclaimed cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz to create and distribute a comic book, in both English- and Spanish-language versions, that would assuage fears that its readers might have.

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Lalo Alcaraz’s Fuertes with the 2010 Census, front and back covers. From the David Damian Figueroa Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Archives.

The main character in the story is Yasmin, a young girl who seeks to educate her family, especially her skeptical father, on the importance of the census.

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Lalo Alcaraz’s Fuertes with the 2010 Census, detail of page 4. From the David Damian Figueroa Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Archives.

The dad is worried about government intrusion and, particularly, that he might be arrested for his unpaid parking tickets.

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Lalo Alcaraz’s Fuertes with the 2010 Census, pages 5–6. From the David Damian Figueroa Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Archives.

Yasmin begins with a brief history lesson and assures her family that their answers to the ten census questions will be kept confidential.

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Lalo Alcaraz’s Fuertes with the 2010 Census, page 11. From the David Damian Figueroa Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Archives

During the Obama administration, one could likely believe Yasmin’s assurances. By law, the Census Bureau cannot share individual responses, including responses about citizenship, with anyone. But it has become difficult to believe any promise of confidentiality from the current administration, given the clear history of blatant and reflexive lying by the chief executive and his proxies.

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Lalo Alcaraz’s Fuertes with the 2010 Census, pages 13–14. From the David Damian Figueroa Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Archives.

Yasmin emphasizes the wide-ranging benefits resulting from the census. California stands to lose billions in federal funds if a large number of its residents fail to respond in 2020. The state could even lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as a potentially crucial Electoral College vote.

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Lalo Alcaraz’s Fuertes with the 2010 Census, pages 15–16. From the David Damian Figueroa Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Archives.

The dad absorbs his daughter’s lessons and starts spreading the word to his coworkers, one of whom is undocumented and admits his fear of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

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Lalo Alcaraz’s Fuertes with the 2010 Census, pages 17–18. From the David Damian Figueroa Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Archives.

The final pages of the comic state three times that the 2010 census will not ask about immigration status, seeking to reassure readers who feel vulnerable to prosecution. From the tenor of the oral argument before the Supreme Court, such reassurances might be impossible in 2020. Five of the justices seemed sympathetic to the federal government’s case and appear ready to overturn the lower court’s decision. There is still some hope, though. Perhaps between now and whenever the decision is released, probably in June, one of these five men will rediscover his principles as a jurist and decide to reject the disingenuous arguments made in favor of adding the citizenship question.

Yasmin wears a shirt reading “El miedo no cuenta,” and the phrase appears too in the MALDEF graphic on the back cover of the comic. It is supposed to be an affirming, liberating slogan: Fear does not count, it can be dispensed with, overcome. But the current administration deliberately spreads fear, knowing that the fearful will not be counted. In 2010 MALDEF and Alcaraz tried a lighthearted approach to tell people that they had nothing to fear from the census. If the Supreme Court defers to the arguments of the administration in Department of Commerce v. New York, millions of people might have every reason to be afraid in 2020. Given the abhorrent treatment of immigrants to the United States in recent years, if they then refuse to participate in the census, who can blame them?


  1. U.S. households were first asked about citizenship in the 1820 census. Between 1900 and today (but excepting the 1960 census), some percentage of the population has been required to answer a question about citizenship. From 1970 to 2000, a citizenship question appeared on what is called the “long form,” which was sent to one in six households, while the balance received the “short form,” which contained only a handful of basic population questions. The questions on the long form were transferred in the mid-2000s to the American Community Survey (ACS), which surveys a small percentage of households on a rotating basis every month, obviating the need for two decennial census forms. The questionnaire used for the 2010 census did not include a citizenship question, but the ACS continues to ask households about citizenship. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the administration in Department of Commerce v. New York, all households may be required to report citizenship status in 2020. Visit the website of the U.S. Census Bureau for information about the decennial census and the ACS.
  2. New York v. U. S. Dep’t of Commerce, 315 F. Supp. 3d 766 (S.D.N.Y. 2018). For the quote, see page 276 of Judge Furman’s opinion, “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law,” available on the website of the Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law:

Doug Johnson is the Archives Specialist at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. He was previously a processing archivist at UCLA Library Special Collections and at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library. He has a graduate degree in Film Studies from the University of Iowa and a BA in Religion from Williams College.