The Lives beneath the Counting

I had found the perfect way to stop grinding my teeth and tearing my hair out over my client’s recalcitrance toward the fourteen calls I had made to her in two weeks. She had still not brought me the document I had to mail to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services by the deadline in two days in response to the agency’s completely arbitrary Notice of Intent to Deny her application to renew her Temporary Protected Status. This was the plan: after our evening concert on Sunday, my husband would drive me to Jessica’s house. I would flaunt my excessive diligence, thus shaming her for her extreme negligence, and leave with the document in my hand, which I would mail the next day. I grew excited at the prospect. 

Richard put her address in his GPS device and started driving. From a street off the desolate North Avenue, with straggling apartment houses and dismal smatterings of depressed business fronts, he turned five times deep into the bowels of a world that hadn’t existed for us in our thirty-six years in this fair university town. He stopped diagonally across the street from the house.

At nine pm the neighborhood was by consensus sleeping, feigning sleep, or performing evening duties in the innards of houses under dim light, hands ready to clamp the mouths of children as they raised their voices to speak. No silhouettes of home dwellers flitted past drawn curtains. ICE—U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—was known to prowl around, waiting to swoop down on a hapless person who answered their knock. I knocked, knocked, knocked again, and knocked again before the door opened. 

“Who are you?” I asked the woman who was staring at me, not replying.

“I’m looking for Jessica,” I said. 

“Jessica is not here. I am her sister,” she said, starting to shut the door. 

I whipped out my card revealing that I was a lawyer and stuck my foot in.

The Census Bureau wants to pierce the Latino community’s invisibility—self-imposed and imposed by a community, state, and country disregarding their hard labor and regular tax payments and at every moment wanting them out. Gloriously, the ideal of the census is to find, persuade, and count every single person in America, no matter where living, how looking, what wearing, eating, or speaking, and no matter what immigration status. Monumentally, as I picture it, it scatters armies of census takers across America’s vast landscape, in cities and villages, on farms, atop mountains, under bridges, alongside rivers, to find every dwelling place, apartment, mansion, house, shack, mobile home, and to knock on their doors, return to knock again, then return to knock on neighbors’ doors to ask about their whereabouts. “I am the census taker. I am here to count you. Please open the door.”

Many Latino immigrants have learned to not open doors, because behind them, one, more, or all are “undocumented,” without legal status, and are living their days, months, and years as fearful potential victims of ICE. The census taker, in turn, has learned not to give up, shows a census badge through the glass door and earnestly begins speaking to the person who comes out: “I am the census taker. I am not ICE. I’m counting the population of America. The population is the total of each and every person living in America. The federal government has a 675-billion-dollar pie to divide among its fifty states every year, for ten years. States with the largest population get the largest share of the pie, and the most populous counties in each state get the largest slice of the state’s share. With its share your county will build or improve roads, schools, hospitals, and emergency rooms for you and your children. 

“So you see, you have power,” continues the census taker, picking up passion. “By just lifting a pen to fill out the questionnaire, you bring in $2,050 per year for your state, county, and community. How did I come to this $2,050 figure? By dividing the 675 billion federal dollars by the 10,617,423 people who live in Georgia. Your family of six brings in $12,300. Over ten years you will have contributed $20,500 and your family of six, $123,000!

“As soon as you sign, you achieve Equality. You see, the wealthy, the educated, the ignorant, the white supremacist, the resentful unemployed, the exploitative employer, all those who love to hate you—they all desperately need you to sign. Their children go to the same schools as yours, they rely on the same hospitals and emergency rooms, cross the same roads on the same zebra crossing. They depend upon you. If you don’t sign, there is less money for the community going to them and their children.”

The census taker avows in exhilaration, “The beauty of all this is that by signing you discover your humanity, their humanity, Humanity. You realize that everywhere, at any time, you are face to face with another person, angel or devil, touching, grasping, clasping, hanging on to, locked in the person’s embrace. You are connected to The Essential Person, The Human Being. No human is alien. No human is alone. They realize your humanity, their humanity, Humanity.

“The census is about the Constitution, that sacred document of America, about the political rights that flow from it to you, whether or not you can vote. Make the population swell, and your political districts in your state get an additional Representative seat in Congress. You can then fight for the candidate of your choice to be elected to this seat. The census is also about preserving your life story for your descendants seventy-two years later, and about the stories your ancestors preserved for you by agreeing to be counted seventy-two years ago despite suffering hatred themselves. Yes, the census gives you privacy. No government or private agency, no individual—no one—has access to your questionnaires for seventy-two years. The Census is Freedom, Justice, Epic Poetry, Maha America. I’m serenading you to sign. I’ll serenade every person until each gets added to another and the numbers surge and merge with humanity. I’ll serenade the ICE officer and the Immigration Judge.” 

If we all had the pure and ardent heart of the census taker—and if the government did too—where would America be? We would be making the lives beneath the counting count in our lives. I would count for sure the life of Jessica, my seemingly don’t-care Latina client whose status, true, would have lapsed but for my night trip to her home, but who humbled me in the end. While I was drinking orange juice in her kitchen, she was in New York City trying to obtain the needed document from an uncooperative mother. Upon being lambasted on her sister’s phone about the consequences of untimely application, she chose not to risk faxing it (and having a fax-shop employee discover its contents) but to drive all next day and deliver it past midnight into my hand, gleefully and joyously. 

I would count also the life of my U-visa client who was raped by her priest at twelve, and was still cutting herself at twenty-seven while also bringing up three rambunctious boys. A client in removal proceedings for ten years, who lost seven children to two abandoning U.S. citizen wives, three toes to diabetes, and his own life (almost) to a self-created electric-cord noose. So many clients who worked extra hours, sacrificing food and entertainment to pay my fee installments (sometimes, having missed a Friday payment, knocking on my door early Saturday and finding me in my pajamas). The elderly couple who kept dropping in with vegetarian pupusas long after their cases were resolved. Those who forgave without rancor my (rare) errors that delayed their pilgrim immigration journeys.

But I also would count those clients who needed a second, third, or fourth chance: the client who disregarded my ten calls for outstanding fees once he was released from detention, then changed his number. (I could have throttled him.) The undocumented gas-station owners who were too fearful to help their undocumented employee held at gun-point in their store to get legal status, despite possessing videotapes of the crime. My foiled “terrorist” co-conspirator client, who upon turning court’s witness against the operation’s “mastermind” would have been murdered if he were deported back home, by the terrorist organization or the counterterrorist military fighting it, whichever got him first. 

All, all, after all, are trapped in circumstances and unjust systems. All, all, have yearning hearts. Look at them again, then really count them. Count! Count! Count! Count! Count! Count!


Sujata Gupta Winfield practiced employment-discrimination law for many years, advocating for employees, and is now an immigration lawyer who lives and runs a solo firm in Athens, Georgia. Having left Calcutta, India, she is attuned to her clients’ poverty, sorrow at leaving behind home and family, feelings of alienation, experiences of disadvantage in a new land, and striving to make their sacrifices work. “The Lives beneath the Counting” is her first published piece.