The National Census Day passed quietly on Brown campus on April 1, 2010. In fact, many of us didn't receive the census form in our mailboxes until the second week of April, while average American households received the forms in early March.
The American Constitution stipulates that all residents of the land, citizens and non-citizens alike, be counted in the census. The residence rule for the 2010 census also specifies that foreign students living in the U.S. while attending college here be counted where they live and sleep most the time. So for much of the past month I had looked forward to getting the census form in the mail. When I didn't get one on the National Census Day, a profound feeling of loss gnawed at me. I felt marginalized and ignored in a momentous event in American politics when political maps are redrawn and the political weight of each state is recalibrated.
But my complaint must sound very atypical. Elsewhere in the nation, census workers were fervently mobilizing troops to address an altogether different problem, which is the pandemic political indifference to the census among the American populace, especially among the immigrant population.
Instead of being ignored by the census bureau, immigrant groups have become the focus of community outreach efforts in the 2010 census due to their reluctance to participate. To ensure an accurate population count, the census workers need to persuade and cajole those who received the form to fill it out and return it. Given the national campaign to get the tens of millions of immigrants involved in the census process, one has to conclude that the conspiracy to bar just a few hundred foreign students at Brown from the population count does not exist; on the contrary, there seems to be a genuine desire to include all foreigners and immigrants, even those who are in this country illegally, in this important political process.
This is why it is both puzzling and frustrating to see the ambitious effort to reach out to the immigrant communities to fall far short of its goal to get every immigrant counted. And at the heart of the puzzle and frustration is the cold fact that the courting of the immigrant communities every 10 years cannot compensate for the distrust and fear immigrants in America have in an atmosphere of perennial intimidation and harassment.
The most immediate fear an illegal immigrant would have when he or she receives the census form is that whatever information he or she puts in the form would be turned over to immigration authorities. Despite the census bureau's public assurance that no such information will be shared with other government agencies, volunteers and census workers found they needed to go to extraordinary lengths to assure the immigrants of the absolute confidentiality of their personal information and gain their trust.
Yet many other forces constantly work to undermine immigrants' trust and confidence in the authorities. Recently, it took a Supreme Court ruling to establish that "lawyers have a duty to warn their non-citizen clients about the potentially disastrous immigration consequences of pleading guilty to a criminal charge." It is indeed shocking that the need for honest legal counsel was even under debate in the first place.
It is also obvious that forcing an immigrant to reveal her immigrant status before he or she can report a crime constitutes a big risk to public safety and renders immigrant communities in particular vulnerable to violence and crime. Illegal immigrants' reluctance to cooperate with the police and other government agencies has resulted in a life outside legal protection.
It is the consensus of police forces in the country that the best policy to police the immigrant population and ensure public safety is to bring immigrants out of a life in shadow. Treating illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals not only ignores the basic fact that the immigrants are actually the most vulnerable victims of crimes, but creates obstacles to any real solution to crimes.
Similarly, the huge effort of the 2010 census to get every resident in the country counted points to the profound wisdom that a truthful counting of immigrants in the United States serves as the necessary foundation of any reasonable and rational discussion of immigration in American political life. Perpetuating immigrants' fear and distrust of lawyers, policemen and the census bureau only precludes genuine political solutions. The presence of a vast immigrant population in the U.S. is a fact. Any sensible solution to deal with the problems arising from immigration should start with a realistic step to count and account for the new immigrants to this land.
Yue Wang '12 is a political science and German studies concentrator from Shanghai. She can be contacted at yue_wang (at) brown.edu.