The government is fumbling some efforts to assure immigrants that U.S. census data will not be used against them, including gaps in outreach and foreign language guides that refer to the decennial count as an investigation.
With the launch of the head count weeks away, the Census Bureau's outreach has been falling short in at least a dozen major cities, such as Chicago, Dallas, New York and Seattle, according to a report released Monday by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Many of their states are on the cusp of gaining or losing U.S. House seats based on the census and face a redrawing of legislative boundaries that may tilt the balance of political power.
The report generally praises the Census Bureau for improved efforts since 2000. But noting the large ramifications of even a small undercount, the education fund is critical of the Obama administration. The legal group cited the government's refusal to give fuller assurances that census data would be kept confidential and to suspend large-scale immigration raids during the count — as was done in the 2000 census. AALDEF said it wasn't ruling out legal action to get stronger guarantees.
The census officially began last month in parts of rural Alaska. Most of the nation will receive their forms by mail the week of March 15.
"We have heard a lot of speeches by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and the census director saying the census is confidential. But speeches and Web postings do not have the force of law," said Glenn Magpantay, an AALDEF program director, in a telephone interview. "Our concern is how much risk immigrants are putting themselves at."
Other groups agree more work needs to be done.
Risk of 'undercount'
"We are running the risk of a real undercount," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "The next few weeks will be critical."
The Census Bureau is printing instruction guides and sample forms in dozens of different languages for use in community help centers, since one in five residents speak a language other than English at home. But there have been errors due to poor translations, including material for Vietnamese speakers that describe the census as a "government investigation."
The agency was able to correct its Web material two weeks ago after groups pointed out the problem, but it's too late to fix the paper forms, according to the report. There are more than 1.1 million Vietnamese in the U.S., mostly clustered in California and Texas.
Other gaps included a lack of specialists for the Bangladeshi community in Detroit; the nation's third largest Korean-American population in Chicago; and the south Asian and Cambodian groups in Philadelphia and Rhode Island. In Virginia, when groups cited a need for census specialists for their Korean and Vietnamese communities, the agency responded by hiring someone who spoke Chinese.
Responding, the Census Bureau has emphasized it is devoting a large amount of its $133 million ad campaign to racial and ethnic audiences, including television spots in 28 different languages. It also worked with more than 150,000 business and community groups, hoping to build trust in its message that filling out the 10-question census form is safe and easy to complete.
Immigration raids will go on
The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, has made clear it will not ask the Homeland Security Department to hold off on large-scale raids as they successfully did in 2000. That has drawn consternation from immigrant groups, particularly as it has become unlikely that Congress will take up immigration reform this year.
To encourage participation, Census Director Robert Groves on Monday visited neighborhoods along the U.S.-Mexico border near Laredo, Texas. As many as half the residents were missed there in 2000 because they had little knowledge of English and feared being turned over to immigration agents.
"The Census Bureau's outreach effort is unmatched in the history of the census, but we are never satisfied," said Commerce spokesman Nick Kimball. "We will continue to work with many different groups and stakeholders to improve on this unprecedented effort to make sure everyone knows their information is safe and secure, and to get an accurate count."
The recent criticisms by AALDEF and other groups underscore the intense political pressure to have a tally free of the smallest margin of error. Even a 1 percent undercount means 3 million people are missed, typically minorities and poor people whose communities are then shortchanged in political representation and federal aid.