2010 Census at Risk of Inaccuracy Due to Immigrants’ Reluctance to Participate

Printed Census forms at a warehouse - Photo: Census Bureau.

Against an unsettling background of immigration raids and deportations, the U.S. Census Bureau expects to have a hard time convincing close to 12 million undocumented immigrants to take part in its population count next year. Therefore, it is asking community and advocacy groups for help.

“Because the bureau is part of the federal government, we don’t have credibility among people,” Philip Lutz, the assistant regional census manager for the bureau’s Philadelphia region, said last week.

The challenge faced by the Census is particularly pressing in cities that have received record numbers of migrants in the last 10 years, said Lutz, who spoke at a Manhattan public forum on ways to include undercounted populations in the count.

That is the case of New York City, whose foreign-born population is estimated to be 37 percent of the total.

The “Counting Us Out” forum –organized by the New York think-tank Demos– attracted representatives from more than a dozen immigrant advocacy groups and community-based organizations.

Lutz’s job at the forum was to remind groups that, by law, census information is confidential and not shared with other federal agencies. He also wanted to engage them in the agency’s outreach efforts, for one compelling reason: the data obtained will determine the drawing of congressional districts, and the distribution of about $400 billion in federal funds for public works and social services.

While the message was straightforward, organizations seemed torn between two goals. They want the population to receive a fair share of representation and funding, as much as they want the Obama administration to protect their constituents by doing away with immigration raids and committing to comprehensive immigration reform.

“We are talking about an issue of coordination between two federal agencies. We have [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] policies alienating the same immigrants that the Census Bureau wants to engage,” said Norman Eng, director of Media Relations at the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), an umbrella organization of more than 200 immigrant groups.

“The administration can’t have it both ways –he added–. If they want to do census outreach right they need to choose what’s their priority.”

The two federal agencies’ conflicting actions have caused the Census Bureau to cancel informational meetings in neighborhoods affected by immigration raids.

“The Census Bureau doesn’t want to be associated with ICE,” Eng said.

Despite the apparent tension, Eng and others represent a segment of the immigrant population that is willing to help in the campaign to include undocumented immigrants in the Census.

“There is a lot of energy out there and organizations want to help because they understand the importance of the census,” said Eng.

Others, however, such as the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders (CONLAMIC), have taken a diametrically opposing stance and gone as far as calling for immigrants to boycott the Census.

“I don’t get what they’re doing,” said Eng. “There are other ways to push for immigration reform. A boycott will simply undermine the community’s strength.”

NYIC and other groups have asked Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano for a moratorium on ICE immigration raids to help census outreach in immigrant communities.

DHS has recognized that the raids obstruct the work of the Census Bureau but it has not committed to suspending raids in 2010.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, received the following response from Napolitano after inquiring about planned ICE actions during the Census:

“You expressed concern over the potential for immigration enforcement actions during the upcoming census. Please be assured that the Department supports a thorough and accurate count of our population. Our immigration enforcement actions focus first on those who present the greatest risk to the safety and security of our communities.

“Effective enforcement of our Nation’s immigration laws requires that we focus our efforts on dangerous criminals. ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately; we acknowledge that such actions pose significant civil rights concerns. DHS is committed to smart and effective enforcement.”

The 2010 Census not only comes at a sensitive time for immigrant groups but also during an economic crisis. Organizations willing to help say they can only go so far in their efforts, because their funding has suffered significant reductions and they don’t have enough money to mount thorough campaigns.

In the meantime, the bureau and its partners in local governments are adding creative strategies to an already titanic multilingual operation in order to increase response levels among immigrants.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the opening of a 2010 Census office with the sole task of improving census outreach. The local departments of Education and of Community and Youth Development are creating curriculum materials and extracurricular activities to educate children and youth about the importance of the census, with the hope that these two ostensibly odd targets can effectively pass on the message to hard-to-reach adults.

The bureau has also incorporated Twitter, Facebook and other social media in its outreach plans.

Joseph J. Salvo, of the population division of the city’s Department of City Planning, pointed to a map showing heavily immigrant areas have less than 40 percent census response rates, way below the citywide average response of 65 percent.

“We have a great challenge here,” he said.

AboutMaibe Ponet
Maibe Ponet is a Venezuelan-American journalist. She is currently the Opinion Page Editor for El Diario La Prensa, the oldest Spanish-language daily in the United States. She has worked as a reporter for leading Venezuelan national publications and was a staff writer for the Spanish language newspaper Hoy, where she covered local politics and NYC City Hall from 2002 to 2005. Following her departure from Hoy, she served as a press person for candidates, elected officials and city agencies, including the 2005 Democratic mayoral nominee Fernando Ferrer, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the New York City Department of Education. Maibe is a former Independent Press Association Ethnic Journalism Fellow. She holds a BA in Journalism from the Central University of Venezuela, and a master's degree in Urban Policy and Management from The New School University.