Filipinos Divided Over Census According to Immigration Status

The fourth in a series of articles on the 2010 Census and immigrant communities. This story was written for Feet in Two Worlds by Cristina DC Pastor – Managing Editor, Philippine News.

Photo: John Rudolph

(Photo: John Rudolph)

The census envelop had been sitting on the nightstand for more than a week, and Sylvia J. still didn’t know what to do with it. Sylvia, an undocumented immigrant who asked that her real name not be used, knew what was inside, but this Filipino caregiver from Queens was not making any decision yet.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m waiting to see what my cousin says.”

Sylvia’s reticence is typical of many undocumented Filipino immigrants’ reaction to the 2010 Census. Despite repeated assurances from officials and community leaders that answering the 10 census questions would not tip off authorities to their status, many remain wary.

“I worry about the information I will put there. Do I have to fill out everything, my name and address?”  she asked.

Fil-Am organizations are trying to reach out to anxious immigrants like Sylvia, and help allay their fears. One of them is Filipino American Human Services (FAHSI). “We explain to them that the census does not report to the INS, and that these are two different agencies,” said Rose-Ann Ubarra, the group’s executive director.

At FAHSI, there’s a staff that helps first-timers to New York, like Sylvia, fill out census forms. There are about 250,000 Filipino immigrants in New York City.

“Some people are intimidated by official forms,” Ubarra said.

Confidentiality is the biggest issue clouding the census for Fil-Ams and other Asian immigrants in New York. In the 2000 census the city reported an average 55 percent mail return rate for census forms. The Census Bureau, along with city and state government and private organization are working to improve that number this time.

A report prepared by the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, or AALDEF, cites another related concern: continued immigration enforcement during the period that census information is being collected.

“According to many service providers and advocacy organizations that serve immigrants, a moratorium on immigration raids would be one way to ease concerns about the confidentiality of the census,” says the report entitled,Interim Assessment of Census Bureau Outreach to Asian Americans.” “The Bureau needs to take additional steps if it expects undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable communities to cooperate with census-takers during the enumeration period.”

Psychotherapist Hernan Hormillosa said he understands the fear among undocumented Filipinos. But at some point, he argues, immigrants need to gather the courage to stand up and be counted “in the interest of the greater good.”

“There’s a law that protects them,” he said, referring to a prohibition against census workers disclosing information.  Personal data gathered by census workers cannot be shared with other government agencies such as immigration authorities, the FBI, the IRS, or the Department of Human Services.

“The census has repercussions for programs and the budget to be allocated for a community,” said Hormillosa. For example, he asks, how can the Fil-Am community be granted a culturally sensitive program, such as Filipino American History Month, “if the government doesn’t know how many people we are, and that we are a big social, cultural and economic force?”

Ubarra credits the Census Bureau for increasing its outreach to encourage more immigrants to participate in this year’s survey. In the past, she said, “I didn’t feel the census has targeted the immigrant community as much as they should have. This year there is really this big push, it’s just wonderful.”

Other than privacy concerns among TNTs (tago ng tago, Tagalog for “always hiding”), the census is not that big a deal in the community, said Philippine Forum (PhilForum)  Community Action Coordinator Jonna Baldres.  Language is not an issue as in some Asian communities, and Fil-Ams are only too willing to participate.

Like FAHSI, PhilForum has opened its doors to immigrants who may need assistance answering census questions. Twice a week, said Baldres, census workers are at PhilForum’s Bayanihan Community Center in Queens to help out with forms and respond to concerns about confidentiality.

Godfrey Loyola, a distributor of community newspapers, said he’s done his duty and mailed back the census questionnaire; his son filled out the form for the family.

“They said if we don’t fill it up, the budget of Queens will be smaller. Of course, we don’t want that to happen,” he said, quoting census workers and his neighbors.

But Ubarra noted, there are people who just don’t trust government, and that attitude may take time to change, especially for Fil-Ams who are in immigration limbo.

“I know the census is important,” conceded Sylvia, “but I’m worried about the consequences on my status.”

Read other articles in this series on the census and Chinese and Russian immigrants.

The Feet in Two Worlds project on the Census is made possible thanks to the generous support of the 2010 Census Outreach Initiative Fund at The New York Community Trust and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.