Census 2020 ads don't do enough to dispel immigrant fears, advocates say

Published in Public Radio International on

A 60-second advertising spot in Spanish that discusses everyone counts and filling out the census is important.

The 60-second advertising spot is mostly a feel-good montage. A restaurant worker, a grandfather, a farmer, and a child tell the viewer in Spanish that everyone counts, and that filling out the census is important for the local community.

But then, toward the end, is this line: “The census is coming, and by law, your personal information is protected.”

It’s a nod toward mistrust in the federal government, said Carlos Alcazar, co-founder of Culture ONE World, the advertising contractor the Census Bureau hired to create ads for the Latino population. Some of the ads were released last week, as part of the Census Bureau’s $500 million public outreach campaign that will feature 1,000 ads in multiple languages.

“We ensured that all of our ads contained at least some level of information — a line, a message — that reinforced that the information [entered in the census] is safe, secure and will not be shared with other government agencies,” Alcazar said.

The Census Bureau has historically considered racial and ethnic minorities, immigrant populations and non-English speakers “hard to count” for reasons such as language barriers, legal status and housing stability. But getting an accurate count this year might be harder than ever. The Trump administration’s failed efforts to add a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census have scared many would-be respondents. And many immigrants — no matter if they’re undocumented or legal permanent residents and citizens — may still feel they cannot give their personal information to an administration that often vilifies them.

The language in the advertisements is an attempt to assuage immigrants’ fears, Alcazar explained. But some immigrant advocates say it’s too little, too late.

Related: Here's why the census citizenship question stokes mistrust

Alcazar said immigrants’ misgivings and mistrust in the government came up in advertising focus groups. He said a lot of the immigrants in the groups didn’t know what the census was or why they should fill it out. 

But then, “as people began to learn more about what the census did, the next thing that came up was ‘well, what do they do with that information?’ ‘How does that information get shared?’  ‘Who does it get shared with?’ ‘How is it used?’”

So Culture ONE World created a series of ads designed specifically to address these fears.

One ad, a snippet of which was featured in AdAge and will be released in full in March, reassures Spanish-speaking viewers that their data collected in the census cannot be shared with the police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It features a group of young Latino men having dinner. One guy says he’s scared to fill out the census, the implication being he could be deported. His friends then reassure him.

Here is a translation:

LUIS:  Welcome to the US, Juan.

JUAN:  Yeah. Thanks!

PEDRO:  Cheers!

LUIS:  Good to see you!

PEDRO:  Well … let’s see. (looking at the menu)

JUAN:  Listen … I saw that at home they’re considering filling out the census, but isn’t it dangerous?

LUIS:  Not at all! I was just like you 10 years ago. I filled it out and look at me, I’m still here.

PEDRO:  Your personal information can’t be shared with ICE nor with the police. Don’t worry.

JUAN:  Well, that’s good! Right?

Some immigrant advocates say they’re concerned the ads didn’t mention the citizenship question — the subject of legal battles between the Trump administration and immigration advocates for much of last year.

"Unless you follow the census every day or are up on the news, you probably did not realize that the citizenship question has been rejected by the Supreme Court and it won't appear on the census,” said John Yang, the president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, one of the groups that challenged the citizenship question in court. “So the failure by the Census Bureau to explicitly mention that, we do think is a missed opportunity." 

Yang says there’s still a sense of confusion around the citizenship question and lingering fears that could deter immigrants from participating in the census, which could lead to an undercount.

And an undercount of immigrant communities would be a big deal. Census results determine the apportionment of congressional seats, as well as federal resources for things like health care services, infrastructure planning, disaster preparedness and research. So communities that are already marginalized could be marginalized further if they’re undercounted.

“I understand people’s concerns, and I really don’t want to minimize them,” said Yang. “But the failure to participate in the census does great harm to the community.”