Communities take steps to foster Latino census participation despite citizenship question

There's a greater effort at coordinating with churches, teachers, libraries and clinics to educate those they serve about the importance of being counted.
Image: Census Outreach Program Encourages People To Return Census Form
U.S. Census volunteer Charles Colebrook carries a census bag as he visits homes during the "March to the Mailbox" effort on April 10, 2010 in Miami.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

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By Stephen Nuño-Pérez

The Supreme Court is debating the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census. But communities with a high number of Hispanic and immigrant families are not waiting for a decision and are putting money and resources into ambitious, targeted campaigns to ensure families fill out the census forms.

In Arizona, Coconino County treasurer Sarah Benatar says a census task force has been making community outreach plans for the past year.

“From congressional seats to funding that trickles down to the local level in housing, education and transportation, these decisions are based off of census formulas,” Benatar said. Those public services need to be provided by local communities regardless of the numbers, she explains, so if there is an undercount, the local and state governments lose federal funding.

The stakes for an accurate count are high for jurisdictions with immigrant and Latino communities. The keyword that emerges often when discussing the census with public officials and community organizations is trust. Benatar said the county has been making plans for coordination with churches, teachers, libraries, nonprofits and health clinics to educate residents about the census.

In Arizona, Benatar said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been conducting raids in Flagstaff and nearby Sedona. Though most Latinos are born in the U.S., Hispanics who have family members who are not citizens may be wary of providing family information to the government.

“I’ll use myself as an example. My mom was on a temporary status here, she got her citizenship in 2002. We didn’t open the doors for people we didn’t know," Benatar said. "You get this form in the mail asking all these questions, and as an immigrant you ask if this is going to impact my status.”

According to a group of researchers, the addition of the citizenship question would reduce the number of Latinos counted by 6 million people (12 percent) and result in "substantial undercounts in states with large immigrant populations." According to a survey by Matt Barreto, political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, only 35 percent of immigrants and 31 percent of Hispanics said they would trust the Trump administration to protect citizenship information.

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In Los Angeles, community organizations built around immigrant rights have become a powerful force in California politics, and they're taking their clout and aiming it at the census.

Diane Colin, the director of civic engagement for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), highlighted the exponential growth they've had in reaching out to local residents. “Since 2004, we have been doing a voter contact program focusing on low propensity Latino voters," she said. "In 2004, we talked to 1,200 low propensity voters in the San Fernando Valley —in 2018 we talked to 243,000 voters in 34 different counties throughout California.”

CHIRLA is building on this outreach as it kicks off its "Contamos Contigo" ("We Count on You") campaign. Part of the strategy, Colin says, is to prevent the need for census workers to come to immigrant households by encouraging immigrants to complete the census online or over the phone.

Colin says CHIRLA is ready to deploy a call center with advocates willing to stay on the line with immigrants as they call in to complete their census forms. “We will stay on the phone with them on the three way in case they need a (Spanish-language) translator,” she said.

Colin says that the variety of services that CHIRLA now provides, from legal to advocacy, allows it to come into contact with the immigrant community more than 2.7 million times in a year. This infrastructure will be the foundation for the group's census campaign.

CHIRLA Executive Director Angelica Salas said that with almost half of the workers in California being an immigrant or the children of immigrants, the importance of the census for California is profound.

At the state level, the director for the California Complete Count Committee (CCCC) says that the state has revised its timeline to ensure success.

“The 2020 census may be the most difficult census count yet, from a new online process to a citizenship question. There are many roadblocks to overcome," Ditas Katague, the director of the CCCC 2020 program, said. "We’ve started our census outreach and engagement efforts early and are committing more resources than any other state to reach Californians statewide.”

Diana Crofts-Pelayo, communications chief of CCCC, says that the state has committed more than 100 million dollars for the effort, with another 54 million dollars being discussed in the Legislature to tackle "undercount" issues.

The state’s Department of Finance Demographic Research Unit has created a metric for targeting “hard to count” communities by developing an index compiled through various agencies on where to focus their attention, Crofts-Pelayo says.

National groups worry the citizenship question will depress census participation at a time when Hispanics have seen strong demographic gains.

Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, released a statement on the eve of Tuesday's Supreme Court oral arguments over the citizenship lawsuit. “The 2020 census, which is taking place at a time of unprecedented and widespread fear, will be the first in the nation’s history in which Latinos make up the nation’s second largest population group. An undercount of the Latino population due to the unlawful inclusion of this untested and ill-intentioned question would mean a failed census for the country.”

José Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation, a national advocacy group, told NBC News earlier this month that their message is that the community should say "presente," which means present.

"Power rests in our hands completely — no one can stop you from doing it [filling the census]."

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Nicole Acevedo contributed.