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SALT LAKE CITY — On a Tuesday visit to Utah, the head of the U.S. Census Bureau sought to allay concerns in the Beehive State about security and a possible citizenship question on next year's online questionnaire.
"Everyone matters, and everyone should be counted," Director Steven Dillingham told more than 100 community leaders, researchers and others in Salt Lake City.
He sidestepped a question about how a citizenship ask could affect the count, instead emphasizing the agency's duty to make sure a person's responses are protected as the survey moves largely online for the first time.
"The fear that this may not be confidential, we need to do something about that. So we need to educate," he said.
Dillingham's visit comes as the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the possible question about whether a person is an American citizen. President Donald Trump has said the report would be "meaningless" without it. But many have expressed concern it would harm response rates by turning away undocumented Utahns and their families, plus new immigrants and refugees. A ruling is expected by the end of next month.
The agency is barred from releasing identifying information, Dillingham said. But many in Utah's Latino communities remain fearful it could end up in the hands of immigration enforcers, said Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a Utah-based immigrant rights group.
"I think the concern is very much valid," Garza said.
The Census Bureau asked about a person's citizenship status decades ago, Dillingham said Tuesday, but retired the question in 1950. In 2005, the Census Bureau added it to a smaller population questionnaire, the American Community Survey.
The 2020 census faces technical hurdles, too, including new security risks as it moves online. In a March report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office identified 1,100 system weaknesses, writing they need to be addressed to "an acceptable level before systems are deployed." A 2018 test run of the count failed to test each system to be used in 2020, and took place only in Rhode Island, one of three locations originally planned.
Dillingham said the one-state test went well and his employees are now tailoring it to work across all 50. He stressed that people who don't want to respond online can phone in or mail their answers.
"We're really confident that we haven't identified serious deficiencies, but we are very focused on looking at that, and that's one of our highest priorities," he said.
Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former Democratic state lawmaker, said the canceled tests cause her concern.
"We're trying something new without having tested it very extensively," she said, adding that she fears those in rural communities who lack internet won't be accounted for.
Utah lawmakers earlier this year declined to set aside a proposed $500,000 to encourage participation in the 2020 count, a move Chavez-Houck called "very short-sighted and possibly a lack of understanding or appreciation for the fact that it's an investment." She believes the omission will give an economic leg up to neighboring states who are willing to pony up, such as Nevada and California, by ensuring a more complete count there that will net more federal funding.
The U.S. government relies on the once-a-decade questionnaire in parceling out money for schools, roads and social services. In 2016, it set aside about $5.7 billion for Utah, a small share of roughly $675 billion spent nationally. The count also helps determine how voting districts are drawn and how many congressional representatives a state will have.
Utah in 2010 logged a response rate of 75 percent, one point higher than the nationwide level of 74 percent. But the statewide rate can obscure much lower levels in certain neighborhoods, Dillingham said.
"We're laser-focused on trying to get our resources into those areas with the greatest need, to try to reach those populations," he said during a regular breakfast panel hosted by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Census employees are hard at work coordinating with local advocates and mapping neighborhoods ahead of the official count, he said.
Deciphering how many people live in the vast American West — home to tribal lands, rural communities and oftentimes poor internet connectivity — is much different than in other parts of the nation, noted Denver-based regional director Cathy Lacy. For some Native American reservations without daily mail service, agency workers will hand-deliver the questionnaires, she said.
A historical undercount of one Native American community in Utah has become apparent, but the barriers are more than just logistical, said Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, the cultural natural resource manager for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation.
She recently reviewed prior census figures, which indicate there are just 82 members of the tribe. In reality, there are more than 550.
“It was sad,” Timbimboo-Madsen said. “When I showed our council that, they said, ‘We’re going to do better.’” A more complete tally could help the tribe in securing more federal grants, she said, including one to possibly help children with ADHD do better in school. But many of the tribe's members remain skeptical of the federal government and want to keep personal information private, Timbimboo-Madsen said. "There has to be more outreach to our people."
Dillingham said he planned to visit Tuesday a Utah community that has had low-response rates in the past but didn't know which one and would not allow a reporter tag along.
He also met with public relations employees of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, requesting it to encourage participation in the 2020 census like it did in 2010 through a letter shared with congregations, said church spokesman Doug Anderson.