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Rhode Island Gets A Sneak Peek At New Census Questions


OK. We're still a couple of years away from the next census. But if you live in Rhode Island, you might be soon getting a sneak peek at some new questions that could be asked of everyone when 2020 arrives. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Mike Simpson opened his mailbox recently and found a letter with a warning.

MIKE SIMPSON: Your response is required by law.

WANG: Is that what caught your attention when you're going through the mail?

SIMPSON: Yeah, 100 percent. Also, in big letters, it says census on the front. And I'm a census fan (laughter).

WANG: And lucky for him, the Census Bureau is sending test questionnaires for the 2020 census to every household in Rhode Island's Providence County. That's where Simpson lives in an apartment with four roommates, including Brooke Gassel, who helped him fill out the form.

SIMPSON: How are you related to me as person one?

BROOKE GASSEL: You're my religious, spiritual adviser (laughter). Friend.

SIMPSON: Roommate or housemate?

GASSEL: There we go.

JEFF BEHLER: There's renters. There's immigrant communities. There's students living off campus.

WANG: And that's why Jeff Behler, who is overseeing the 2020 census tests in Rhode Island, says the Census Bureau chose Providence County, where the demographics, the bureau says, mirror the rest of the country. Over the next four months, the bureau will do a dress rehearsal to work out any problems before rolling out the first U.S. head count to be conducted by mail, phone and online. For the tests, the bureau is also hiring workers to visit households that don't send in their information.

BEHLER: We're required to keep our information that we collect confidential and only produce statistics.

WANG: Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from releasing any data that identifies an individual. But Rhode Island's secretary of state, Nellie Gorbea, who is a Democrat, says she's worried that privacy concerns will discourage people, especially immigrants and communities of color, from responding in her state and could lead to Rhode Island losing one of its two seats in the House of Representatives after the 2020 numbers are used for reapportionment.

NELLIE GORBEA: Over the last two censuses, the growth of the Latino community has made sure that we don't lose that 2nd District.

WANG: Gorbea says she's especially anxious about a Justice Department request to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. A DOJ official has said the department needs a better count of citizens old enough to vote in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act. A decision could come this week from the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau. But Gorbea says this is not the time to ask immigrants that kind of question.

GORBEA: Even if they're legal green card residents, under the current anti-immigrant rhetoric in our country right now, that question might raise a lot of concerns.

MIRIAM CRUZ: For me, no problem. But other people is worried because for immigration, because for no papers.

WANG: Miriam Cruz, who lives in Central Falls, R.I., where she takes English language classes at Progreso Latino, a social service agency serving immigrants in the Providence area. Cruz says she's excited to see where her state's population stands in 2020. And so is Mike Simpson.

SIMPSON: Make sure I got everything in here.

WANG: Back in his apartment, he and his roommates are finishing up their questionnaire for the census test.

SIMPSON: Going to seal this, put it in the mail.


SIMPSON: On its way.

WANG: Back to the Census Bureau to prepare for the next big count in 2020, when Simpson says he'll be ready to fill out the census form all over again. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Providence, R.I.

(SOUNDBITE OF BINKER AND MOSES' "TREES ON FIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.