The citizenship question

Over two decades ago, I relentlessly pursued a few score folks, who — for reasons of forgetfulness, fear, apathy, orneriness, principle or a combination thereof — had neglected or deliberately refused to fill in the decennial Census questionnaire previously mailed to them.

It was a “temporary enumerator” summer job, paying $15.25 an hour, and, more to the point for this contracted government retiree, offering a chance to get out of my comfort zone.

Most of the people I tracked down were foreign-born — Indians, Russians, Somalians, Japanese and others. I knocked on many doors of these immigrants, whose legal status I knew not. Roaming dimly lit apartment halls, I dutifully charted my visits and left form notes if nobody responded. Interviews were usually brief, requiring only a half dozen short answers.

My respondents were usually friendly and often genuinely interested in telling their stories. A few found my visit annoying, but perhaps less so than the long form: 54 questions sent to every sixth household in the country to collect presumably very useful information on ethnic origins, work, housing, disabilities and so on. Many were put off, I imagine, by having to respond in writing, in other than their native language, to that lengthy questionnaire.

The in-person interviews often lasted an hour, which, of course, made them more memorable to me. As when I asked, for instance, a 46-year-old Eritrean woman, a non-U.S. citizen in this country just two years, whether she'd ever served in the U.S. armed forces. She laughed like I was crazy. But she was the only one of my respondents who mentioned her citizenship status. And, of course, that was not one of our 54 questions.

Another day, I was welcomed by a large, pleasant Egyptian man, in clothes that looked like pajamas to me. His wife and young son looking on, he listened patiently to all of my questions. He didn't seem perturbed to tell this stranger how much money he made last year or that his apartment had flush toilets. Would he have been as responsive if I’d inquired into his citizenship? Early on in the meeting, he insisted I drink an orange soda. From Alexandria, Egypt, he was delighted to learn that I'd visited there on business 20 years earlier. A few words of courtesy Arabic from me as I departed, off to my next adventure.

Many of my targets were residents of three large apartment complexes, populated almost entirely by Salvadorans and Hondurans, perhaps a mile from my comfortable house in Arlington. There I encountered a melange of sights, sounds and smells — kids playing in hallways, exotic cooking aromas of garlic, coriander, chutney. People I met in those buildings may have responded to me because they thought it their duty or maybe an act of patriotism, even when they'd initially forgotten or chosen not to respond on paper.

Once, in less than an hour, I managed to conduct a long-form interview in my halting Spanish, with five unrelated adults and two children in a small but outwardly happy apartment. Would they have answered as readily, or even opened their door, if they thought their lives in this country might be cut short by answering truthfully a question about their citizenship status?

Each day that I walked the streets, with my badge, clipboard, forms and sharpened pencils, I learned a little more about my neighbors' complicated lives. I still think about some of the people I encountered, like the mother who insisted, in response to my question about her family’s ethnic origin (but not their citizenship) that she was Hispanic, while her teen-aged daughter insisted with equal vehemence that she was American.

I sometimes wondered what went on behind those closed doors, how some people reacted to my authoritative knock, often needed to penetrate the loud TV or salsa music filling the apartment on the other side. I wondered about those who chose not to answer — the suddenly vanished television sounds, the shushed little children. Inconvenience? Or old age? Or just stubborn-nesss? Perhaps.

But how might such folks respond in 2020, if they respond at all, to the mailed questionnaire, or answered the insistent follow-up knock on the door, if they’d heard that the 2020 Census would ask whether or not they’re U. S. citizens, as is being considered?

Would they believe the written assurance, or the promise of a temporary enumerator like me, that their privacy would be guarded and that the citizenship status information would not be shared with any other agency (think: ICE)? Would they conquer their fears just so that they could be counted, knowing that an accurate total count would have many serious consequences for this country?

What do you think?

Gerald Kamens is a retired government worker who worked in the White House, the U.S. Senate and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. His email is glkamens@aol.com.

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