Arab American Family Services co-founders Nareman Taha and Itedal Shalabi sit for a portrait in their office in Worth, Illinois. (Photo: Max Herman)

A Proper Head Count

The people convincing immigrants to take the 2020 census

The framers of the Constitution had a mandate for Congress: count the number of people residing in the country every ten years. Though the decennial census has been in place since the founding of the country, Illinois officials and community organizations are especially pushing census participation in 2020 as the state has billions of federal funding dollars—and perhaps even a seat in Congress—at stake.

Though every single person residing in the United States, regardless of citizenship or residency status, is supposed to be counted, it’s not uncommon for a significant number of people to be missed. According to the Census Bureau’s research, the groups most at risk of being undercounted are racial and ethnic minorities, persons who do not speak English fluently, lower income persons, homeless persons, undocumented immigrants, young mobile persons, children, persons who are angry at and/or distrust the government, and LGBTQ persons. A census undercount can have effects that reach far beyond the federal government or 2020 since many other institutions rely on census data to make their own estimates or structure their data collection.

This year Illinois lawmakers set aside $29 million in census outreach funds, which will mostly go to on-the-ground groups with close connections to hard-to-reach populations. Considering the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, census officials are especially focused on turnout from the immigrant population.

The high-profile fight to include a question about citizenship (which officially will not be on the census) has many concerned that undocumented immigrants and their families will forgo the form entirely. But the undocumented are just one facet of a diverse immigrant community at risk of going uncounted.

This summer, City Bureau reporting fellows interviewed dozens of residents, including immigrant advocates, to understand the stakes of the 2020 census and the behind-the-scenes challenges of getting people to participate. Below we’ve compiled responses from advocates representing several undercounted populations.

Deborah Stein of Partnership for America’s Children explained why children are by the far most undercounted age group in the United States.

Itedal Shalabi and Nareman Taha of Arab American Family Services talked about the limitations of the census racial categories which force many Middle Eastern and North African people to identify themselves as “white.”

Nayoung Ha of the Hana Center described how the Korean community missed their chance to get Korean-language ballots in Illinois during the last census, and how that affects her organization’s outreach efforts this time around.

Nancy Asirifi-Otchere of the United African Organization discussed the changing African immigrant community and why it’s essential for this relatively small group to be counted.
Their responses have been edited or condensed for clarity.

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Who are the populations most at risk of being undercounted in next year’s census, and why?

Deborah Stein: The group that has the biggest fear of being counted is undocumented immigrants who are not known to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and are afraid ICE wiIl learn about them in some way if they participate. We’re also seeing a lot of fear in immigrant households that are documented.

The kids that are missed are young children, ages zero to four. So one big group of kids, almost two million kids, are citizen children living with at least one undocumented parent. But even before the immigration environment became so poisonous, back in 2010, we missed over two million young children. Four out of five of them were missed in households that were counted. [Editor’s note: The Weekly found that the number of children living with at least one undocumented parent is closer to five million.]

We know kids of color are more at risk of being missed, and kids in linguistically isolated households. So it’s not just that English isn’t the first language, it’s that English is difficult for the family. Kids being raised by grandparents are at risk of being left out; kids who are not related to the person filling out the form, so it might be mom and kid are living with the boyfriend, but the boyfriend doesn’t really think of them as part of his family; or it might be mom and the kids are homeless and they’re staying with friends temporarily. But they should count them if there’s no other way they’re going to get counted.

Nayoung Ha: There’s an attitude when you’re a Korean living in Korea versus a Korean living in the United States. It’s an ownership issue. If you’re a Korean living in Korea, the ownership is very strong, everything happening in the government, that’s my thing.

Nayoung Ha stands for a portrait at HANA Center where she serves as Organizing Director. (Photo: Max Herman)

But a lot of Korean Americans who live in the United States, even those who have lived here for thirty or forty years, because of the language issue, they always feel like this is someone else’s country, not my country.

If it’s something that the federal government is doing, people don’t understand what it is for. We need to go to people and say, “If you get this kind of letter and need help, ask us, and we will go over it with you.”

Nancy Asirifi-Otchere: I know that there is the issue of trust, especially during this time when there’s so much anti-immigrant rhetoric and so many of our communities are living in fear and are anxious about the government. So I’ve had people ask me, what is the right way to respond? And I think that through our meetings with community leaders and key stakeholders we will figure out the right way in which we are able to convince people about why it’s still important for them to do it.

What’s at stake for the communities that you serve?

Nancy Asirifi-Otchere: Gaining a good count of the diverse African community would not only highlight our number and make us visible within the society, but it also helps us in getting more resources for our communities. That makes it really critical for us to make sure that we have an accurate count of the community that is here.

Nancy Asirifi-Otchere of the United African Organization (Photo: Ayana Cochran)

I think that there are many arguments why a unified voice for the Black community is important but when it comes to areas where you really want to find specific data about the immigrant or refugee population, then it’s difficult. It’s difficult to identify from that data set which [people are foreign-born].

When we met with staff from the Census Bureau, a chunk of Africa is just grouped under “other African countries,” and there were some people who were asking, “Why is my country not listed?” That is always that bigger issue about Africa and how people tend to group us all as one.

Deborah Stein: It really matters that we miss kids. It means that their communities get less political representation than they’re entitled to. Census data is used to allocate over $800 billion a year in federal funding. If you count everybody, the total amount of federal money actually goes up. Sometimes your community’s share is based on how many kids are counted in your community. Decennial census data is what school demographers use to figure out how many classrooms or even chairs in the classroom that they’ll need.

Nareman Taha: [Editor’s note: Last year, the government announced that a Middle Eastern North African category would not be included in the 2020 census.] We were hugely disappointed and view this as a setback in the progress we have made towards being counted in this country. It becomes personal and political when we are not treated as white but forced to identify ourselves as white on forms. So for us, this is an issue of visibility and being counted correctly.

Nayoung Ha: Last census, we fell one or two percent short of the mandatory number of people to get a Korean-language ballot in Illinois. [Editor’s note: After the 2010 census, the government began using American Community Survey data to determine ballot language accessibility.] The other point is that the census determines the number of representatives that Illinois has in Congress. In this era, we need to keep our state’s voice.

What should people know about the census?

Deborah Stein: First of all, the citizenship question will not be on the census.

Census data is required to be kept confidential and a penalty for releasing it is a quarter of a million dollars or up to five years in jail.

If you fill out the census, the Census Bureau won’t send someone to your home to count your family because people would much rather do it themselves than if someone comes to the house.

Millions of immigrants pay their taxes using a number that’s not a social security number and that’s a safe process that still exists. You’re already providing information about your family through the tax system, and that’s been fine, so you should feel comfortable with this, too.

What is your group doing to help encourage census participation?

Nayoung Ha: We are organizing the Korean American Complete Count Committee whose job it is to get the word out about the census and to encourage people to participate. We are working with seven to ten other Korean American nonprofit organizations, faith leaders, the Korean American Association of Chicago and several academics following Korean American sociopolitical issues.
Hana Center is organizing education sessions, mostly targeting hard-to-count populations in the Korean American community. That includes seniors whose first language is not English, international students, Korean adoptees, the North Korean refugee population, kids under five and single moms. We started collected census pledge cards and we’ve been canvassing and door-knocking in the area around Hana Center in Chicago [Albany Park and Avondale] and in the Schaumburg area.

Itedal Shalabi: We are asking our community members to mark “some other race” on the census form and write down Arab, and then whatever country they come from originally, be it Egypt or Iraq. The biggest focal point in our Complete Count Committee is to ensure that we are counted, first and foremost, so we don’t lose federal funds or political representation in Illinois. However, we hope in the next ten years that researchers will come in and look at the “other” responses and concisely explain the consequences of not having a category for people from the Middle East and North Africa.

Our goal now is to show community members why it is critical and important to be counted. It isn’t just immigrants but Americans, in general, don’t get how important it is to be counted in the census, and it has huge implications for funding, services and political representation. The census is about our community’s future.

What else should people know about your group’s work?

Nancy Asirifi-Otchere: The last decade or so there’s been a lot of people from French-speaking countries like Mali, Senegal and others, [who] have settled on the South Side right here. A lot of people from Congo—they had a recent election and it turned out pretty rough—and from the crisis in the English part of Cameroon, we’ve seen a lot of people fleeing and looking for a safe place to come to.

The interesting thing about Africans is that unlike how we have Chinatown, the community has over time dispersed and so we don’t have a specific area where you have large numbers of Africans. Really it is a large, diverse community with people from about fifty countries. Different languages, different cultures, different food. Trying to bring everyone together really is an issue of trying to see how you find uniformity between all these diverse cultures.

Itedal Shalabi: Now, as an organization, we are very focused on coalition building with other immigrant communities and people of color because we need to support one another if we want to survive. We want to show our community how to build bridges with other communities and focus on issues like schools and hospitals.

Nareman Taha: Our intention was never to become political, but then the Arab community suddenly became very political after 9/11. Today, everything about us is political. It made us realize that we need to be active and not just in our own community, but we need to be active and build coalitions.

Our younger generation, they didn’t live through 9/11, but it was a lesson for us that this country targets groups for exclusion. From the separation of Native American children to Japanese internment, to our Latino brothers and sisters experiencing detention, this country can isolate and bully you, and that’s why we need to organize and build coalitions. If we are not at the table, then we are on the menu.

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This piece was produced in partnership with City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.

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