05/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ideology Over Facts in Prescott Arizona

Ideology and the census clashed in a small Arizona town this week. Ideology seems to have won.

The small town in question is Prescott, Arizona, population about 34,000. Who makes up that 34,000? That's what the census is for. The reason for the census is to count everyone who lives in the United States. Everyone. Legal or illegal. The count is of huge importance to every community in this country because census figures determine how Congress is apportioned and how hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds get spent.

But in Prescott Arizona the quest for accurate data seems to have fallen victim to ideology. According to an article in Prescott's Daily Courier, there was a large banner hanging over a Prescott street, urging members of the Prescott community to respond to the census. The banner reminded people that money for services such as roads and hospitals depended on an accurate census. The banner also reminded everyone living in Prescott that census information is kept private and confidential for 72 years.

All accurate information. So why was the banner removed? Because it was written in Spanish.

Radio talk show host and Prescott City Councilman Steve Blair said he "came unraveled" after seeing the banner; he said he was concerned that visitors seeing the sign would think "we're a Spanish community rather than an English community" (an English banner promoting the census hangs one block away). Prescott City Council member Steve Hanna stated his objection to the sign bluntly: "If you're here in the U.S. and can't speak English, you need to go home."

The purpose of the census is simple, the importance enormous - count every person living in the United States so we get a real picture of how many people live here and who those people are. Accuracy has always been difficult, in no small part because of the historic fear of immigrants to respond to the census. It's a fear based on misinformation about what the government does with the information, and a fear of government period. People here illegally or with someone in their family here illegally tend to be most frightened. Brent Wilkes, Executive Director of League of United Latin American Citizens knows how important the census is to everyone in the U.S., and how vital it is for Latinos to participate; he calls the date of the census (April 1, 2010) "a critical date for all of us," and says a factual and accurate accounting of the U.S. population will "transform what is known about our diverse and growing population." He urges Latinos not to fear "the knock on the door."

You don't have to be here illegally to fear the knock on the door. I'm a first generation American, my family all proud citizens of the United States. But that didn't stop them from being afraid when a census taker came to our door when I was a child. What I remember is my mother's reaction. Afraid to open the door. Hesitating before saying anything. Answering questions in a barely audible mumble. The minute my father came home from work my mother rushed to tell him about the census, he was so concerned he didn't even take off his coat. They discussed it in anxious tones, wondering if she'd done something wrong by answering the questions. Dinner had to wait while they called brothers and sisters to find out if they were in trouble. As worried as they were for themselves, they were far more worried about what would happen when their parents got the knock on the door. My parents and grandparents all spoke English perfectly, but like most people speaking in a second language, when something made them nervous they faltered. This was particularly true with my grandparents. When faced with something official all confidence in their new language simply deserted them. No form was submitted without one of their children reading it over, phone calls concerning bank accounts, taxes, whatever, had to wait until one of their children was beside them.

You can see why they were afraid of the census. Looking back I can see how it would have helped if the government had done something to help alleviate their fear...something like, oh, maybe having the census explained in another language to make them feel more at ease.

Every community in the United States should want their census to be accurate; that's how you ensure you get the schools, hospitals and roads you need. The census tells you who your neighbors are, and surely no one would need that info more than a member of a city council, for how can you possibly serve the members of your community if you don't know who they are? Prescott doesn't really know: the 2000 census showed only 8% of the population in Prescott to be Hispanic, a number that census official Ryan Smith said is far less than the actual population.

But by taking down that banner Prescott seems to be sending a message: they really don't want to know how many people lives in their community. More accurately, those who wanted that banner taken down really don't want to know how many of one kind of people live in their community.

Perhaps it's not just immigrants who are afraid of the census.