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The head of the U.S. Census Bureau is preparing to face a major challenge. His agency is required by law to count every person living in the U.S. in 2020. But the bureau is running into many hurdles, including a legal fight over a new citizenship question. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang sat down with the bureau's acting director for his first news interview since stepping into the role a year ago.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Ron Jarmin leads more than 4,000 employees from the Census Bureau's sprawling headquarters. But these days, he's focusing more on the millions of people outside the bureau's glass walls, all the people the Constitution says the government must tally up every 10 years.

RON JARMIN: Who is supposed to be counted? All residents are supposed to be counted.

WANG: And when you say all residents, does citizenship status matter? Does immigration status matter?

JARMIN: It does not.

WANG: It's a responsibility, Jarmin says, that the bureau takes seriously because the power of these numbers last for a decade.

JARMIN: Whether it's funding for streets or for schools or for health care, decisions throughout the federal government are made based on the population of the local communities that people live in.

WANG: Not to mention how many seats in Congress and Electoral College votes each state gets and how legislative districts are drawn. And there's been growing concern that the 2020 count will not be accurate. More than two dozen states and cities are pointing to a new question asking whether a person is a citizen of the U.S. That has led to so far six lawsuits filed against the bureau.

JARMIN: Controversy about the content of the census does complicate our messaging. We need to get responses from everybody whether they like the question or they don't like the question.

WANG: The citizenship question was added by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau. Ross has said the Justice Department needs responses from it to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But Jarmin and other researchers at the Census Bureau warned Ross that adding a question could discourage noncitizens, and that could put the accuracy of the next head count in jeopardy. While the federal courts sort out the question's fate, Jarmin says his agency is moving forward with plans to ask about citizenship status in 2020.

JARMIN: The longer we go without knowing exactly what's going to be on there, that could be a risk.

WANG: The risk of giving personal information to the government is weighing on the minds of many noncitizens at a time of increased immigration enforcement under the Trump administration.

JARMIN: We want to make sure that people know that it's safe and secure to answer the census and that it's important that they answer the census.

WANG: Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from releasing any information that would identify individuals, but the bureau can release anonymized information about specific demographic groups living in specific neighborhoods. And that, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Oversight Subcommittee for the census, does raise concerns about trusting the government to not use that information against people.

TERRI ANN LOWENTHAL: The Census Bureau can tell people till it's blue in the face that the law provides the strictest protection for the confidentiality of census information. But people are only going to be convinced if community leaders carry the message.

WANG: Ron Jarmin says he's hoping more local leaders step up in time to rally interest in the upcoming census and to share accurate information about the head count that's taking place at the same time as the 2020 presidential race. Jarmin says the bureau is planning to keep a close eye on social media.

Are you worried that there could be a tweet from President Trump that doesn't match the bureau's messaging about the 2020 census?

JARMIN: I'm not too concerned about a tweet from the president in that regards, but I'm concerned about tweets from anybody that somehow, if it gets enough traction - that is giving the public bad information about the census.

JARMIN: Amidst all this uncertainty with the 2020 census, there's another question. Ron Jarmin is the acting director of the Census Bureau. And he says there's no word from the White House about when he might be replaced. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.

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