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Reaching the Hard-to-Count: The Census and the Undocumented | The Nation

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Reaching the Hard-to-Count: The Census and the Undocumented

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If you're like most residents of this country, you live somewhere that's still reeling from the recession. The unemployment rate remains high; fear, anxiety, and uncertainty are palpable. This sense of foreboding can't be replaced with relief and reassurance without a complete Census count. If the Census is successful, this year's results will enable substantial reinvestment in all communities and help stabilize the economy over the next decade.

But at a time of increasing disillusionment with Washington, President Obama and Congress have so far missed an opportunity to persuade Americans that the Census shapes how government provides for our shared needs.

For months, they have failed to explain that the Census will inform the distribution of nearly $ 420 billion per year in federal grants to states and localities for public programs in education, income security, housing assistance, healthcare and transportation infrastructure. They have also neglected to emphasize that businesses regularly consult Census data to understand where and how to create jobs and spur growth, based on accurate representations of consumer demand and the workforce required to support an expansion of existing operations.

This week, the Census Bureau has begun collecting a list of addresses from non-responsive households; from May to July, more than 700,000 Census workers will hit the phones and knock on doors. Nearly thirty percent of US residents have yet to mail in their surveys. The participation rate is lowest in large cities and rural areas. A big part of what must still be conveyed is that local and state governments are slashing budgets for public goods and services that the Census count would allow the federal government to strengthen and enhance.

Lots of attention will continue to be focused on the hardest-to-count areas with specific characteristics--high numbers of renters or low-income families, for example--where millions of immigrants live and work. To reach these areas, Census offices are recruiting many bilingual workers. For some households, English language skills necessary to fill out the survey are lacking. For others, living side-by-side in subdivided apartments or basements, or in other ad-hoc arrangements, there is no clear "head of household" tasked to fill out the form.

Since 2000, immigrants have flocked to cities like Phoenix, Atlanta and Washington, DC, and in the Southeast and Southwest more generally. A complete Census will offer a detailed profile of these demographic shifts so that diverse localities benefit from growing populations. Conversely, a large undercount of immigrant residents would be devastating for everyone. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study of the 2000 Census revealed that undercounting cost the largest counties nearly $3,000 per missed person; these counties not only share in overall state losses for federal programs but also lose resources to relatively better counted regions.

Compared to the last Census, states and cities have set aside millions less for outreach campaigns. As a result, private foundations, nonprofit organizations and ethnic and independent media outlets have stepped up to close this communication gap, which is especially pronounced in hard-to-count immigrant communities.

In an interview, Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), explained that his organization's national Census campaign has partnered with Spanish-language media and leveraged advocacy and enthusiasm for immigration reform among many Latinos to show that marching, mobilizing and being counted go together. "You may not be able to vote but you can be counted" has been a very effective empowerment message, Vargas stressed on the phone from Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, NALEO and other organizations had to combat Latino evangelical leaders who called for a boycott of the Census to build pressure for overhauling our immigration system. But ultimately, the boycott fell flat: an early March survey from the Pew Hispanic Center found that over 83 percent of Latinos reported that they hadn't heard anything from religious or media groups discouraging Census participation.

Many immigrants are still reluctant to answer the survey, despite the fact that all individual Census responses are strictly confidential and can't be used against them by Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) or any other government agency. Martha Chavez, coordinator of organizing and advocacy at New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) in Queens, New York, told me immigrants want to know why the Census Bureau is asking for so much information and how it will improve their lives. NICE regularly dispatches staffers to churches and day laborer sites to connect with residents where they are and underscore how the Census will boost their neighborhoods.

People on the frontlines say only trusted and committed community voices can do this work well. Immigrant advocates are quick to point out that the reality of the Census is very different from the perception created by ubiquitous Census ads. "I know what didn't work. What didn't work was the '10 questions in 10 minutes [slogan],' " said Maureen Ramirez, director of the Minnesota Civic Engagement Table, which has been heavily involved with Census outreach in Minneapolis. "That's true if you are an English speaker who lives alone." Once people began receiving the Census, they started telling her it was "way more than ten questions and more than ten minutes. It's ten questions for the first person, and seven per person after that." For non-English speaking immigrants, many of whom live in larger and fluctuating households, the survey is a much longer and more daunting task to finish than the ads would have you think.

This is easy to forget in a place like Minnesota if you don't talk to people doing outreach among immigrants: the state is reporting some of the highest Census participation in the country (take that, Michele Bachmann!), but significant linguistic barriers remain. Ramirez said she found more familiarity with the Census among Spanish-speaking immigrants than among African immigrants, because many more translated materials are available in Spanish than in Somali, Eritrean or Oromo--the East African languages spoken in her area.

The Census Bureau, which is spending an estimated $15 billion on the count, should do everything it can in the months ahead to assist grassroots organizations and ensure that Census workers have the tools in all the relevant languages to be completely successful in the places they will be targeting.

There is still time to promote the Census as a major vehicle for acknowledging that all residents are part of our economic fabric. As a country, we can't move forward if significant numbers of the nearly 32 million legal and undocumented immigrants working, running businesses, paying taxes and contributing to our growth and productivity are left out. Only a fully inclusive Census will capture how we've changed over the past ten years, and equip all our communities with vital public and private resources to plan for what comes next.

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