With the country’s decennial effort to count every single person living in the United States set to kick off in earnest this week, one of its fastest growing racial groups — Asian Americans — is at risk of going largely overlooked.
Invitations to fill out the U.S. census questionnaire are scheduled to land in the mailboxes of roughly 143 million U.S. households on Thursday.
The mailers will include information about the census, tips on how to avoid scams and directions on how to complete the forms either online or over the phone.
The goal is to count as many people living in the country as possible in order to help the federal government allocate hundreds of billions of dollars to dozens of national programs and to allocate congressional representation to the states.
Experts warn that an undercount will result in the loss of political power and serious funding gaps for schools, health care and food assistance, road construction and other federally funded programs.
But according to a January survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, the likelihood of a miscount involving Asian communities appears high.
Only 55 percent of Asians reported that they intend to fill out the questionnaire — compared to 69 percent of white, 65 percent of Latino and 64 percent of black respondents, according to the “2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Survey.”
The reluctance of Asian Americans to participate in the census stems from two main factors: their unfamiliarity with the effort — only 22 percent said they were “extremely” or “very” familiar with it — and widespread fear that the information they provide will be used against them by government agencies — 41 percent said they were “extremely” or “very” concerned about that possibility.
This compares to the 35 percent of black, 32 percent of Latino and 16 percent of white respondents who reported similar fears, according to the report.
‘Distrust of the census’
“We have this dual threat of being the group least familiar with the census and being the most distrustful of the census,” said Jonathan Stein, staff attorney and program manager for voting rights and the census at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus.
“Asian Americans are a recently arrived population. A much higher percentage of Asian Americans are foreign born than other racial or ethnic groups,” Stein said. “Lots and lots have not been through a U.S. census before and are wondering why the government wants detailed information on everybody.”
As of 2017, there were a little more than 20 million people who identified as being of Asian descent in the U.S., according to Census Bureau data.
Many new arrivals are from countries without strong traditions of civic participation where trying to influence government policy or behavior is discouraged and can lead to persecution, imprisonment and even death.
“This all comes in the context of a deeply anti-immigrant environment created by the federal government,” Stein said. “ICE is terrorizing families and communities and the president is openly bashing immigrants on a regular basis.”
Fears over government tracking or targeting individuals for reprisals is reflected in the survey data, with 10 percent of all respondents regardless of race stating they held the mistaken belief that the census is used to find undocumented residents and 37 percent of respondents stating they “did not know” if it’s used that way.
Similarly, 6 percent mistakenly believed the data is used by the FBI to keep tabs on criminals and 31 percent weren’t sure if that’s the case or not.
Clearing that hurdle of distrust is one of the biggest challenges for people working to ensure a robust census count in the Bay Area’s Asian immigrant communities, said Lio Meng Saeteurn, local political coordinator for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.
Based in Oakland and Richmond, APEN has been working since last fall to increase awareness of the census and encourage participation in several local Asian communities and recently kicked off a statewide outreach plan.
The group’s initial efforts centered on hundreds of so-called “hard-to-count” households in West Contra Costa County, primarily in the Laotian community.
“When we do storytelling and hear stories of what happens to family members in Laos who speak out, they end up in prison or they murder you in front of your family,” Saeteurn said.
“It’s where their fear comes from and their reluctance,” said Saeteurn, who is from Laos and was born in a refugee camp before her mother was able to immigrate to Richmond in 1983.
“Not wanting to make any noise or rattle the cage — it’s how our people survived,” she said.
To help overcome that fear as much as possible, Saeteurn and other APEN volunteers have canvased neighborhoods and knocked on doors in order to have face-to-face conversations about why the census is safe and why it’s important, Saeteurn said.
“We reached over 900 people,” she said. “Thirteen percent of the folks said they were committed to filling it out.”
APEN organizers have also reached out to churches, temples and other Laotian community groups to recruit trusted leaders in census outreach efforts.
It’s a strategy that involves digging down to the deepest roots of the community and finding voices that people are familiar with in order to deliver messages about the census that will resonate with a specific group of people.
It’s also a strategy that the state of California has backed with a $187 million investment that is intended to flow through the state’s complex network of nonprofit and community-based organizations.
June Lim, the demographic research project director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, is on the front lines of that effort.
Her organization is administering more than $800,000 in state grants and private foundation contributions in the drive to ensure that as many people as possible are counted from specific hard-to-count communities.
“We get the money from the state and we have 11 partners who we work with in different regions across the state to make sure we are reaching the Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island communities,” Lim said.
“We’re eating, sleeping and breathing this,” Lim said.
In addition to the grants, AAAJ has been contributing to the massive and complex statewide census rollout by providing technical assistance, training and translations of census outreach materials to their partners working throughout California.
One of its partner organizations, Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco, has been working on census issues since the 1970s.
CAA, along with the Asian Law Caucus and other groups, has been working with state officials to craft a strategy to reach hard-to-count populations and helped convince the U.S. Census Bureau to hire noncitizens as enumerators to go out into the community in order to physically help people fill out their forms, said Hong Mei Pang, CAA’s program director.
Community outreach efforts
Additionally, Pang’s group is working with several other community organizations to canvas neighborhoods, organize community workshops and to reach out to schools and soup kitchens and food banks.
And while she acknowledges the survey data about the difficulties of conducting a full census count in Asian communities, Pang says there is a counternarrative that is largely going unreported.
“Our communities have been so resilient and so courageous, even in the face of a White House that has been hell-bent on having us go back into the shadows,” Pang said.
The organizational and outreach efforts around the census will help strengthen the same communities that are most affected by anti-immigrant xenophobia, she said.
“These challenges are real and I’m not trying to reduce the anxiety and, I think, fear that comes with this census,” Pang said. “We’re really asking our communities to take a leap of faith with us.”