Yet, federal policy defines “Hispanic” (and we will not get into the problematic nature of this term here) not as a race, but as an ethnicity. And the census prescribes that Hispanics can, in fact, be of any race. This means that when it comes to identifying myself in the census I have to choose either white, black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander. For people like me who don’t identify with any of those racial groups, there is no box for me to check.
It is a slap in the face being omitted in such a way. It is as if my contributions, my existence, are not worth counting in the country I love. My grandparents might not have come over on the Mayflower, but they did cross the Chihuahuan desert, selling a lucrative family business to start a new life in America.
Our race and history must be counted, because it is so quintessentially American. Nowhere else in the world can someone come from another country and adopt the culture and identity of their new home, while at the same time adding their unique heritage to the great melting pot of America. Ironically the census, the very mechanism we use to define American, often warps individual identity, erasing participants’ recent past.
This administration’s recent announcement of a plan to add a census question asking every respondent whether they are a citizen would only further distort our national identity. Millions of undocumented people could opt out of completing the census for fear of being targeted by the Trump administration. This could erase undocumented Americans from our nation’s history.
The census has always played a pivotal role in shaping our nation’s identity and has served as a reflection of the values of the time. This latest controversy is but another in a long line of problematic census data collection, especially when it comes to people of color.
The first census of 1790 featured only the following boxes for race: free white males of 16 years and upward; free white males under 16 years; free white females; all other free persons; and slaves. In 1940, in one of the government’s most egregious violations of the rights of its citizens, the census was used to put Japanese Americans in internment camps.
At the upcoming Define American Film Festival, a convening of immigrant rights activists, we will be premiering a new multimedia art installation examining how problematic, yet critically important, the census is in discussions of race and identity. For this multimedia installation, we interviewed 15 individuals who each checked one of the boxes for race, to more deeply understand how this form represents, or misrepresents, our national identity.
An interview with a white respondent underlines the complexity of identity in relation to the census: “I think being classified as white for me hurts because there is not a box that totally captures my story to whiteness. I am half Jewish, and for my entire conscious life, I have identified as a minority. To me, my heritage is my story; it is the way that I look at the world. It is the way that I inform my opinions. Without a sense of heritage, I don’t think I have a sense of what it took to get me where I am. I think the cost of being counted as white is the loss of history and heritage.”
The interviews are revealing in that they show how much the census acts as a funhouse mirror, offering a distorted view of who we are as a country by erasing whole parts of our national identity.
Adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census threatens to erase millions of individuals and families who call our country home. It would not just affect the response rate of undocumented individuals; it would affect citizen families with undocumented members, otherwise known as “mixed-status” families. For instance, if the questionnaire is altered, 6 million children who are U.S. citizens might not be counted because they live with an undocumented family member.
It is critical for people to overcome their fears and participate in the census. The 2010 Census was used to determine distribution for about a third of federal assistance, approximately $446.7 billion, and 75 percent of federal grants, approximately $419.8 billion annually. These decisions would be affected by inaccurate census data. If you live in a community with a significant immigrant population, your town could be dramatically underfunded by this political move.
This is not just about immigrants and citizens; this is about America’s complicated relationship with our collective racial and ethnic identity.
Ultimately, a census question about citizenship comes down to our country’s ability to accurately self-identify — a question that is at once simple and incredibly complicated. Although I am proud of my Mexican and immigrant heritage, I am American first and foremost. Yet when it comes to recording all that makes me who I am in the census, things are not so simple. For those who have lived in America for 35 years, paying taxes, who are American in every way but their citizenship, it is even more complicated.
We cannot let this administration erase the fact that immigrants make up the very backbone of America. We must never forget that we thrive as a country, unique in all of the world, when we acknowledge all that everyone contributes, through our culture, our work and existence.
This administration can try to erase us, but as Americans we must stand up and be counted.
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