By Mark Hedin
Ethnic Media Services
As the 2020 Census gets underway, a group of four civil rights organizations has organized telephone hotlines in a range of languages to provide information and, when needed, legal referrals for people unsure about filling out the questionnaires.
The once-every-10-years census provides the government with information it uses to annually distribute hundreds of billions of tax dollars’ worth of services and guide the creation and realignment of political boundaries for allocating representation in Congress, the Electoral College and local governments across the United States.
The census, included in the original 18th century wording of the U.S. constitution, is the country’s largest peacetime project and participation is required by law. It invariably falls short of its mission to count absolutely everyone, no matter if they’re citizens, English speakers, homeowners, renters or homeless.
But the census is intended and widely understood to be risk-free and a benefit to all who participate, so the four organizations: the Arab American Institute; Asian Americans Advancing Justice; the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights; and NALEO (the National Association of Latino Elected Officials), are stepping up to provide confidential information to the communities they serve.
The telephone hotlines will operate throughout the census data collection period. Census questionnaires have already been distributed to some communities, but the effort begins in earnest in mid-March and April. Follow-up operations to include those who have not responded to initial Census Bureau outreach efforts will continue through July. The hotlines will operate throughout that entire time.
Callers who speak Arabic are invited to call 833 333-6864, or 844-3DDOUNI (“Count me,” in Arabic). This line is staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST already. As of March 1, the hours will be extended to 9 p.m. EST. The Arab American Institute promises to return voicemail messages within 24 hours.
Those whose preferred language is Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Urdu, Hindi or Bengali/Bangla can call (844) 202-0274, or (844) 2020-API. This line is staffed from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. EST through the end of July, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice promises to return all voice mail messages within 24-48 hours.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights will operate its hotline (800) 268-6820, also 888-Count20, through the end of July. It’s working now from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST and beginning March 2 will remain staffed until 9 p.m. EST. The organization promises to return voice mail messages left at other times on the following business day.
NALEO’s line, for Spanish speakers, (877) 352-3676 or 877-EL-CENSO, is operating from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. EST. Voice mail messages will be responded to on the next business day after they are received.
The hotlines will all also field calls from English-language speakers.
The organizations expect to field a range of calls about the census from basic information requests to legal questions or concerns about incidents that require follow-up.
Together with the Leadership Conference, the Brennan Center and MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund), the groups have also organized a network of legal specialists across the country to respond to questions ranging from basic obligations regarding the census to concerns about threats to disrupt census participation.
The organizations have previously performed hotline services to protect election integrity.
One widespread concern about the 2020 Census is whether respondents can trust that personal information they provide will truly be kept confidential, as promised and required by law. Applicable laws include some of the strictest confidentiality regulations anywhere in government, such as fines of up to $250,000 and years of incarceration for anyone who shares people’s personal information with other government agencies such as police, ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or the Border Patrol, to name just a few examples.
But in case those laws and promises aren’t enough, the organizations, with MALDEF leading the way, have also developed a census confidentiality protection pledge. Intended to boost confidence among so-called hard-to-count populations, it commits a coalition of individuals and organizations to using their power and influence to address, deter and end any breaches of census data confidentiality.
The Census Bureau, as part of its own efforts to overcome language barriers, has prepared a series of 27 instructional videos about the census. They range from nearly 10 to almost 20 minutes in length in each of the following languages: Amharic12:47, Arabic13:53, Armenian11:29, Bengali13:19, simplified Cantonese9:51, traditional Cantonese9:52, English9:25, Farsi14:21, French11:02, German12:29, Greek11:57, Haitian Creole10:37, Hindi11:55, Italian10:59, Japanese11:39, Korean11:13, simplified Mandarin10:01, traditional Mandarin10:02, Polish13:34, Portuguese10:45, Russian11:58, Somali14:38, Spanish11:43, Tagalog12:10, Thai, Ukrainian12:50 and Vietnamese10:33.