2010 is months away, but government officials are already preparing for the next federal census, when all adult residents of the United States will be asked to answer questions about their ethnicity, employment status, household size and other personal facts. The U.S. Constitution requires a population count every 10 years to re-apportion congressional seats among the states.
Census data also helps lawmakers determine where government money should be allocated. But in the 2000 census, many members of immigrant and minority groups did not fill out the form, skewing the results and costing their communities federal dollars.
Census organizers say they must count people in order to help them
The room was packed at a recent New York Community Media Alliance news conference midtown Manhattan recently as census officials and immigrant activists told reporters from the ethnic press about the upcoming count and what it means for the immigrants of New York City. Thirty-seven percent of the population here was born abroad.
In 2000, only 55 percent of New Yorkers returned completed census forms, so nearly half of the city's population was not counted. That meant fewer federal dollars were available for many services in the districts where many immigrants live.
"If you're not represented, we don't know you're around," said the U.S. Census Bureau's Tony Farthing. "And that means you are going to hurt the community in terms of how much money gets dispensed."
Guillermo Linares, New York City's Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs and an immigrant himself, was even more blunt. He implied that immigrants who don't return their census forms are preventing themselves and others from realizing the American Dream.
"We need to be counted!" said Linares, "because what brings us here is a hope for an opportunity to help our families to fulfill our dream to be successful."
Linares cited the need for improved funding for education, health care, social services and youth employment opportunities.
Filling out the census is safe, officials say
There are many reasons why an immigrant might hesitate to reveal personal information on a government form. Many are in the United States illegally and do not want to be discovered or deported by immigration authorities. Some live in overcrowded housing with more families than allowed by law. Some do not pay taxes. Others come from countries where they learned it is wise to avoid any interaction with the government.
Whatever the fear, regional census Assistant Manager Allison Cenak insisted it is unfounded. Under federal law, any agency employee who releases personal census data faces a 250-thousand-dollar fine and up to five years in prison.
"And it's enforced! So we need the help of all our media in New York to spread the word that the census is safe and everyone should participate."
Campaign to win the public's trust
Officials are planning to do everything they can to get that word out. In addition to news conferences, they will be launching massive, culturally sensitive advertising campaigns in 14 languages. The ads will reassure immigrants and urge them to participate in the nationwide count.
Stacey Cumberbatch, New York City's census coordinator, said the bureau is also partnering with community leaders.
"It's trying to find those trusted voices and messages for whoever the community is. Because, at the end of the day, that's what it's going to take."
But Chung-Hwa Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition cautions that broad outreach will not ensure broad participation. She says experience shows that the efforts must be framed in such a way that each ethnic community is sent a message in its own cultural terms.
"Ten years ago, for instance, when the census worked with Asian-American communities, the messages that resonated were, 'It's good for our families,'" added Hong. "For some Hispanic communities, there were messages that conveyed, 'The census is key in making sure that our communities get what we deserve.' For Native Americans, it was the idea that it's part of our tradition to participate and be counted."
Standing up to be counted is an American tradition, too, as well as a constitutional requirement. Census Bureau officials hope their new efforts will result in a more accurate picture of the size and diversity of 21st-century America.