The US Census Bureau regards Alameda County as one of the country’s hardest counties to count. It is ranked 24th in difficulty nationally, largely because of the language barriers that prevent many county residents from participating. But that could change this year. For the first time in the history of the census, questionnaires will be printed in multiple languages. And the agency’s ongoing effort to properly count undocumented immigrants and other foreign-born residents could have huge financial and political ramifications locally if various efforts to discourage participation aren’t successful.
Hispanics are now the nation’s largest minority group because of immigration from Mexico and Central America. Some conservatives have sought to block the Census Bureau’s effort to properly count this population because they believe it will direct funding and strengthen political power in areas with large populations of undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, some Latino groups are seeking to turn the enumeration into a bargaining chip in their fight for rights.
The estimated undercount in the census of 2000 cost the county roughly $43 million in funding between 2002 and 2012, according to a report by the federal US Census Monitoring Board. And across California, estimated losses during that period were a whopping $1.5 billion. As a result, federal funding for programs from neighborhood revitalization to assistance for crime victims was lower than it should have been.
The 2000 undercount happened in large part because of language barriers that prevented recipients of census forms from responding. The Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey estimates that in 2008 Alameda County was home to between 108,000 and 121,000 Spanish speakers who spoke English “less than very well.” So on March 17, the US Census Bureau will mail out 13 million questionnaires written in both English and Spanish. The forms will be mailed to neighborhoods where at least one-fifth of the population speaks primarily Spanish. The addition of the bilingual form could improve the effectiveness of the agency’s ability to properly count Alameda County and increase the amount of funding the county receives through federal grants.
Because the Census Bureau doesn’t differentiate between citizens and noncitizens, undocumented immigrants are included in its count. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that there are 88,000 undocumented immigrants in Alameda County. According to research by the Drum Major Institute, an organization that studies immigration, this number could translate into some $10 million to $15 million in funding over the next ten years. Contra Costa County doesn’t have as large a population of undocumented immigrants, but Richmond and San Pablo rank highly as “hard-to-count” areas and also will be targeted by the Census Bureau.
The classification “hard to count” is based on twelve variables that correlate with a high non-response rate. Some of these are lack of telephones, linguistic isolation, and overcrowded housing. In California, linguistic isolation and overcrowded housing ranked far above the national average. “We know that a lot of those linguistically isolated households, or places where English is not a language spoken at home, are homes that also speak Spanish, so we can be confident that if there is a bilingual form sent to those residents across the state, there will be a higher likelihood of them filling out the form and thus giving us a better count in 2010,” said Eric Alborg of the California Complete Count Committee. Because of the difficulty of obtaining a good count in Alameda County, some local offices of the Census Bureau employ ten times as many workers as other offices.
And while a larger count means more money for the community at large, some grants are especially relevant to the undocumented immigrant community. Title 1 funding for low-income students, the Community Development Block Grant for affordable housing, and funding through the Medicare Modernization Act are all assistance programs used by undocumented immigrants and provisioned according to census figures.
“Communities have one shot to get an accurate picture and one shot to attract the funding they need because the numbers last for ten years,” said Afton Branche, an immigration analyst with the Drum Major Institute. “This year, a variety of issues will complicate a full count of undocumented immigrants and their families. A rise in local immigration enforcement, along with workplace raids and firings, had contributed to a climate of suspicion of government authority. This may leave many immigrants hesitant to answer personal questions in the census.”
Not surprisingly, an effort to better count the nation’s undocumented population has faced political opposition. Last month, Republican Senators David Vitter of Louisiana and Bob Bennett of Utah proposed an amendment that would change the wording of census forms to ask whether or not the recipient is a citizen. Prior 2010 forms only asked whether or not someone was native born. “Illegal aliens should not be included for the purposes of determining representation in Congress, and that’s the bottom line here,” Vitter said in a press release.
A few days later, the proposed question was taken off the table following a joint statement by former census directors. “Such a massive revision could not be accomplished in time to conduct the census on its currently envisioned schedule,” the statement said. “The resulting cost to the taxpayer is almost incalculable, since the Census Bureau has already spent at least $7 billion to prepare for the decennial enumeration.”
Still, the census isn’t in the clear yet. Several groups from within the Hispanic community have proposed a boycott. “Latino undocumented immigrants are being used only as ‘scapegoats’ with a dollar sign over their heads,” said Reverend Miguel Rivera, dhairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, in an October 1 press release. “We urge members of Congress to pass a fair, decent, and humane comprehensive immigration reform.” Only after that occurs, he said, should Latinos participate in the census.
How effective will the proposed boycott be in the face of such a massive mobilization by the Census Bureau? “People that really understand why it is so critical [for] immigrants of all status to participate in the census are really going to drown out all these fringe elements with positive messages,” said Daranee Petsod, executive director of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.
The Census Bureau is less concerned about the proposed boycott than the fear that the government will use the information to assist in raids. “We need a proxy,” said Sonny Le of the Census Bureau. “We need community-based organizations to speak for us.” So prior to the actual count, outreach workers from the Census Bureau will engage outside organizations that can serve as trusted voices within their respective communities. In Oakland’s multilingual Fruitvale district, the Census Bureau is enlisting the help of the Spanish-speaking Unity Council and La Clinica de la Raza, and the Organization of Chinese Americans to spread a positive message about the count and encourage participation. Following its initial PR campaign, the Census Bureau will undertake the daunting task of trying to count the country’s 310 million people.
Meanwhile, the state’s high unemployment rate is providing the Census Bureau with a very qualified labor pool to draw from. “We have some Ph.Ds, we have some lawyers, we have some doctors, we have some people that used to be CEOs, so we have a whole gamut of people,” Le said. “This is one reason why we were able to finish our address verification sooner, because we had a much more sophisticated workforce than 2000.”
Spanish speakers aren’t the only segment of the population the agency is targeting. Census questionnaire recipients who don’t speak English or Spanish can request a form in their proffered language by phone, online, or directly at a census office. Vietnamese, Chinese, and Spanish are expected to be the most popular other languages in the East Bay, but there are assistance guides in 59 alternate languages that range form Amharic to Yoruba.
Boycott or not, it is expected that next year’s census will provide the undocumented community with unprecedented clout. All reasonable estimates suggest the state’s Hispanic population has grown since 2000. With billions of dollars in play for a cash-strapped California, the census count could become an attractive bargaining chip in the struggle for rights or, at the very least, the chance to count.