Illustration on fear immigrants have of the U.S. Census. (Photo illustration/Flickr)

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of student produced stories looking at the 2020 census.

The last census was in 2010, and I was eight years old and in third grade. My little sister was three. I remember going to the San Pablo library with my mother to pick out new books. At the checkout a librarian told my mom to come back for a census information session.

My mom didn’t take up the offer.

The year before my father was in a work accident, rendering him unable to work. As my mom told me recently, “With everything going on in my life, the census wasn’t important to me.”

“Sometimes immigrants are living such hard lives that they try to be as invisible as possible to remain hidden,” she explained. “You try to avoid the government as much as possible, at all costs. Even though it feels bad to be invisible, it’s better than the alternative.”

I talked to my mom about the 2020 census to better understand the concerns immigrants have about the count. She said she hardly remembers anything about the last census but she does remember the fears she had.

We were a family of four, living in a one-bedroom studio apartment behind my aunt’s house. It was cramped and stuffy. My dad was bedridden. My sister and I slept on a mattress on the kitchen floor. We were trying to fill up as little space as possible.

My mom recalls my aunt telling her not to fill out the census and my mother didn’t disagree. “I had another fear,” she said. “We’re not going to say you’re living here” because like many people after the recession we were living in studios and garages illegally.

We weren’t the only ones hiding. My parents were scared they would be sent back to Mexico, like so many others.

“As an immigrant you don’t understand the benefits that come from the census,” my mom said. “I didn’t even know what questions would be on there. I assumed it would ask me what government benefit programs I was in like Supplemental Nutrition Programs and food stamps. How would that help me? You’re trying to survive above all.”

My mom didn’t see a good reason to fill out the census. “I was scared. I wasn’t even going to run the risk. I didn’t believe it. Why else gather so much information on who we were and where we lived? It’s illogical to think otherwise.”

With a deep sigh, she added, “Fear is the primary reason why immigrants don’t self-report. Even now I can’t think of a reason that would convince them because the fear is so overwhelming.”

The reality for many immigrants is that they live in fear of being deported to their home countries that are unsafe due to violence, drugs, poverty, and human trafficking.

I want to push for a higher self-response rate in Richmond and San Pablo by educating the community. I urged my mom to talk with our neighbors and her friends and to encourage them to fill it out.

She looked at me sadly and said, “I can’t encourage others to fill the census because when I was in their place I didn’t have the courage to do it, so I can’t tell them to.”

“Everything you do has a reaction, therefore, I imagine that if they do complete the census they will have positive consequences but also negative ones,” she added.

“For example, the more immigrants registered on the census could anger people and make them feel like we are invading them. It is both sides. It is positive and negative.”

It breaks my heart that no matter how we try to tell our community that the census is safe to answer, they won’t believe us because they are scared of the government that is supposed to help them. We can try our best to encourage and educate our friends and family. At the end of the day, the biggest impact we can make is filling it out ourselves, adding to the other brave people in our community pushing for a better redistribution of government funds in Contra Costa County.

Last year my mother and I became legal residents and that has changed her attitude about the census.

“I think it’s important to participate for me and for all those people that are feeling the fear I felt. If I can make any difference now in my current situation I have to do it.”

Vanessa Macias is a senior at Making Waves Academy and president of the school journalism club.

This story originally appeared as part of a special section in “CC Spin,” a county-wide student newspaper produced by students at participating Contra Costa County high schools.