Illustration by Valerie Von Rubio

Communities That Count

Undocumented and immigrant residents grapple with the 2020 Census under Trump

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During a two-hour drive through residential blocks in La Villita on April 1, a string of cars beeped and passengers cheered from their side windows as they rolled from Cicero Avenue to 26th and California. Volunteers and staff from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), Enlace Chicago, and Taller de Jose organized the event to increase awareness of the 2020 Census and motivate community members to increase La Villita’s census self-response rates. 

Mateo Uribe Ríos from ICIRR explained that the caravan was “how we get the word out” as a result of COVID-19 social distancing measures. “I want folks to take the census because there’s more that we gain, and there’s a lot to lose if we don’t,” he said. 

Uribe Ríos is a census coordinator for ICIRR, where he works with sixty-three organizations to mobilize census efforts within immigrant communities across Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. He supports partnerships between many community organizations, including United African Organization, Arab American Family Services, Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos. He coordinates community efforts to get out the count, while acknowledging the barriers that make those communities hard to count in the first place.  

In some ways, working as a census coordinator is an unlikely step for Uribe Ríos. When he was younger, he learned of his undocumented status during sophomore year of high school and therefore didn’t want to be involved with civic engagement. “I always stayed away from getting involved when I was younger, because I didn’t see a point,” Uribe Ríos said. “I just didn’t see how I [could] get involved. I couldn’t vote. When I turned eighteen, I knew I could not. I thought that I couldn’t go to a public university. I thought these things were distant from me, and [that] made me feel more separate from the country… It’s always feeling like [having] one foot in the door and the other one out.” 

Growing up in Berwyn, Uribe Ríos said “my barriers as a person who was new to America and U.S. culture” were compounded by denial of opportunities and colorism at a failing school district that deteriorated his confidence. Transferring school districts to Riverside opened his eyes to the uneven resources that different communities received and the possibilities that civic engagement could still bring. “I simply had to move to the other side of Harlem Avenue in order for my life to change completely,” Uribe Ríos said.   

As he got older, Uribe Ríos witnessed undocumented youth events and political mobilization in favor of immigration reform.  “I remember watching C-SPAN and Univision and looking at those votes for the DREAM Act, having high hopes but then seeing it fail. And so for me, I wanted to do something,” Uribe Ríos said.

In 2010, he witnessed one of the very first undocumented youth rallies, where youth came out as “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.” The timing of this youth-led rally also coincided with the last census. “I didn’t know what was at stake,” Uribe Ríos said, “but I know now that the census means something. It means that my presence is being known.” 

With the shelter-in-place order in effect ICIRR’s partner organizations have decided to hold off on door knocking, but they are still finding ways to inform communities, such as dropping off literature. On June 1, ICIRR will be hosting an immigrants and refugee census day. “I’ve been letting our partners know that we can still do the work, but we got to take care of ourselves if we want to advocate for our community,” Uribe Ríos said. 

Despite community efforts, these same communities are often labelled “hard-to-count.” This term refers to historically low response rates, as well as difficulty in increasing participation through outreach efforts. Many hard-to-count communities have populations that are under four years old, living in poverty, racial minorities, unhoused, renters, densely populated, or living in informal settlements. As a result of being under-counted, communities risk losing funding allocations, political representation, and community resources. 

However, labelling communities as hard-to-count carries implications that often do not reflect the communities’ experiences. Census terminology frames these communities as the difficult party, instead of recognizing oppression that has been experienced by those communities and continues to exist. “These folks are not hard-to-count on purpose,” Uribe Ríos said. “These are populations that have been historically marginalized by the government, so they are persuaded to not take the census.” 

He described how historical and current inequalities can influence an individual’s perception when encountering the census, how it’s an entire, deliberate process of weighing risks and past experiences. “We’re talking [about the] large scheme of things, systemic oppression,” Uribe Ríos said.  

“Folks within the undocumented community have reasons for not trusting the government with this information,” he said. “This information has been used wrongfully…This information was used to track Japanese Americans and Japanese-born folks during the times of the internment camps of the 1940s.” Since then, under Title 13 of the U.S. code, census data has protected personal, identifiable information. However, communities fear history repeating itself in light of current anti-immigrant practices. 

“Undocumented folks like us have to maintain a certain level of distance from the government, and then the census is inviting us back for the count,” Uribe Ríos said.  

A recent example is the proposed citizenship question that was barred from the 2020 Census. Lingering confusion over whether the question would appear, as well as fears regarding how personal and household data might be utilized in the future, creates a mistrust of the government. Heightened policing in immigrant communities with ICE surveillance, raids, deportations, and emerging detention centers for undocumented children has further exacerbated those tensions.  

Uribe Ríos said that it shouldn’t be up to undocumented communities themselves to overcome concerns regarding misused information that has targeted them. “The government is [asking for] this step forward—but [the government] won’t step forward for you. And it’s not fair,” Uribe Ríos said.  

“The government is not civically engaging us. Our educational system is not engaged with us. Our workplaces, our healthcare, our cultural understanding of immigrants, is not getting engaged with us. We’re not fully included into all of these systems.” Uribe Ríos said that this lack of inclusion can “prevent communities from seeing the census to the full extent of its effect on our communities.”

He pointed to the contradiction between the census outreach promotion of benefits while, “at the same time, the government is also doing things that discourages us from receiving those benefits the other nine years of the decade,” such as lack of equitable school investment, trouble maintaining community infrastructure, and the persistent need for social services.  

“When it comes to this relationship between our communities, where are the mandates? For the Black community, where are the reparations? For the indigenous community, what are you doing to repair that relationship? For other folks of color, what are you doing to create additional opportunities?” Uribe Ríos asked. Rather than labeling communities as hard to count, it is better to recognize systemic oppression and work towards accountability.

“It’s one thing to just say ‘one person equals X amount of dollars’ for this community. It is another thing to be intentional in saying ‘this community, we know, has been facing issues from the system that has existed in this country.’ We need to do more,” Uribe Ríos said. Without a historical lens, listing census benefits alone does not fully ground present community needs.

As a census organizer, Uribe Ríos said his role is to educate people by having discussions about the census that take these nuances, tensions, and factors into account. He validates individual fears when completing the census in community events, which have recently been held virtually. “It’s difficult. It’s difficult because I agree with my job. I want folks to be counted, and I want folks to get the opportunity to make that decision for themselves. [But] I also wish that these barriers, which are constructs, didn’t exist,” he said.  

Uribe Ríos recognizes that communities have been advocating for themselves in many other ways, and that the census isn’t the only way to do so. He said that these communities “have built within themselves their own safety networks, their own social networks,” but that more resources are needed to sustain their growth and structures. 

For Uribe Ríos, his work promoting civic engagement not only helps with census efforts but also serves to support immigrant communities in gaining more visibility. He said that with census participation, communities can not only support proper determination of resource allocation, but also political redistricting at the state and federal level, despite an individual’s inability to vote. 

Uribe Ríos thinks that for undocumented communities, completing the census should be a two-way street. “[It] means that I count. That means you should be also providing the services that my community needs, because I’m a member of this community... I’m making a statement here that, yes, this is where I decided to make my home and my family.” 

The Weekly’s reporting on the 2020 Census is supported by a grant from the McCormick Foundation, administered by the Chicago Independent Media Alliance

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Jocelyn Vega is a contributing editor to the Weekly. She last wrote about an artist talk at the National Public Housing Museum.

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