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Amid Census Concerns, Religious Leaders Asked To Quell Fears


Here in the United States, the 2020 census is expected to roll out nationwide in just over three weeks. The Census Bureau says it needs help from churches, temples, mosques and other houses of worship. But some faith leaders are not sure how to address fears among their congregations about how census information might be misused. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It's one thing to hear the government say you should get counted for the census. And it's a whole other thing to hear from your imam, rabbi or pastor.


STEVEN DILLINGHAM: If I've learned one thing, it is that you are your community's most trusted voice.

WANG: That's why Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham met with faith leaders yesterday at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., including Sister Judith Ann Karam, the congregational leader of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine in Cleveland.


JUDITH ANN KARAM: The outcome of the census is important because it signifies the dignity of the human person and resources that impact the quality of life of each individual. That is so fundamental to not only Catholic social teaching.

WANG: Sister Karam said it's fundamental across many other faith traditions. It's a U.S. tradition to use census numbers to determine each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, as well as the redrawing of voting districts. During the summit, Census Bureau officials tried to counter worries that census data could be misused.


DILLINGHAM: The data comes in and statistics go out - numbers.

WANG: Federal law also prohibits the bureau from releasing information identifying individuals until 72 years after the information is collected. But Pastor John Zayas of Grace and Peace Church in Chicago raised concerns about how the Trump administration may try to misuse census data to help ICE officers carry out immigration raids.


JOHN ZAYAS: Coming from places like New York, Chicago and areas where we have stood up and said we are sanctuary cities and we will not allow you in, there is a threat towards us.

NELSON B RIVERS III: We talked a lot about what the policy says, but I'm from a community that realized the policy depends on who's enforcing it. And right now, we have a guy who's demonstrated that the law doesn't mean jack to him.

WANG: Reverend Nelson B. Rivers III of the National Action Network pressed census for officials at the summit on how they plan to respond to fears about the count, especially among black and Latinx communities.


AL FONTENOT: For decades, black and brown communities in America have been undercounted.

WANG: Eventually, the Census Bureau's senior executive in charge of the 2020 census, Al Fontenot, stood up.


FONTENOT: We've been undercounted decade after decade after decade. And if we allow fear to cause us to be undercounted one more time, we are putting power in the hands of people we do not want to put power in their hands.

WANG: It was a message echoed by Hurunnessa Fariad, head of outreach for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, or ADAMS Center, of Virginia.

HURUNNESSA FARIAD: If we're skeptical, we're not going to be counted. We're still going to be marginalized. We won't be seen as part of the American fabric, and we actually can't afford to be that way.

WANG: For Prairie Rose Seminole, a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, who's director of American Indian Alaskan Native Ministries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the census is far from perfect, but she says not getting counted risks not getting your fair share of federal funding.

PRAIRIE ROSE SEMINOLE: How can we really create steps for people to get up and out of poverty, for people to end hunger in their communities? This is just one step. And I think we should try to take it.

WANG: It's a step that tens of millions of households will each have to decide whether to take after the census rolls out nationwide on March 12. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "THE EVENING GOSPEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.