Despite San Mateo County leading the state in self-response rates for the 2020 U.S. Census, community leaders and local nonprofits have continued to strive for a complete count of county residents, pushing back on anti-immigrant rhetoric and using the pandemic as an example for why responding matters. 

“We kind of knew the areas that aren’t responding as much because they’re the same areas that are typically vulnerable communities and hard to count. We took that into account and we are really excited because we exceeded our 2010 numbers,” said Melissa Vergara, a community outreach specialist with the San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs

Despite conducting a $187.2 million census campaign during a global pandemic, San Mateo County has surpassed its previous census response record of 73.2%, reporting a response of 73.5% of households with the campaign officially ending Oct. 31. But community leaders have noticed minority communities have fallen behind. 

Anne Im, the immigration program officer leading census efforts through the nonprofit Silicon Valley Community Foundation, said minority communities can be especially difficult to reach due to a long-held distrust of the government. 

“These are communities who, over the course of time and because of a lot of disparities, have been traditionally hard to count. If you look at the immigrant population, many are fearful of government interaction because they’re undocumened or a family member is undocumented. They don’t know that the data is protected by law,” explained Im. 

Federal attacks on immigrants  

Raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Trump administration’s attempts at including a citizenship question on the census form have contributed to greater distrust between immigrants and the federal government. 

“When you look at what’s happening in today’s context, we have had immigration as a big issue in our community. This administration has implemented anti-immigrant rhetoric. … And we’ve seen increased ICE raids, especially over populations with no criminal records or placing children in detention when seeking asylum,” said Im. “They’re more fearful their information might get used against them. Perhaps they fill out this form even though this information is held in the Census Bureau but that environment contributes to the challenges we’re faced with now,” 

The Supreme Court struck down the immigration status question from the census questionnaire, leaving trusted messengers tasked with passing that information along to immigrant communities in the hopes that the news would encourage reporting. Possibly tarnishing that work is a recent memorandum by the Trump Administration directing the Census Bureau to dismiss responses from undocumented individuals. 

“This memorandum, it really is an attempt to scare people from completing the form. Our message is we need to continue to encourage everyone to complete the form and make sure they too are counted. The constitution mandates everyone should be counted. Everyone in the U.S. counts. What happened this week is unconstitutional,” said Im. 

Im, herself an immigrant from South Korea, is performing census work for the third time in her professional career. She said census work has always come with its own challenges but this year has been the hardest yet. 

Vergara, a member of the Latinx community, said she refuses to allow anti-immigrant rhetoric deter her from ensuring every community member is represented. 

“The memo announcement doesn’t change anything about our goal. We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure everyone is counted, regardless of immigrantion status. … It was a blow to our work but we, in our community, want to get that message out that we won’t be erased. Everyone matters and that will not change,” said Vergara. 

Echoing Im’s sentiment, Vergara said unconstitutional moves by the federal government, targeting immigrant communities are done to place fear in those considering reporting. Im and Vergara said local agencies are working to both fight the memorandum and to send a message to San Mateo County’s undocumented residents that they still count. 

Data collecting during COVID

On top of having to alleviate concerns over the federal collection of sensitive personal data and dealing with deep rooted feelings of distrust, the census campaign has been held while all energy is placed on slowing the spread of the coronavirus. 

Sonny Lê, a partnership specialist with the Census Bureau, said that while COVID-19 has created extra challenges for data collection, the pandemic has helped solidify the importance of having a complete image of local communities. 

“Covid also distilled another message, clarifying for us that without data, public health enforcements are left in the dark. We see the news about the death rates, infection rates; ‘where’s the breakdown for Asian Americans, Latinos.’ [News about the pandemic] is driven by data. … All those things we can’t talk about without having good data,” said Lê, a Vietnamese immigrant and refugee. 

Vergara also said the pandemic has served as an example for why accurate data is necessary, because data collected now will go on to decide how many clinics a community has built, the number of school lunches available for children and how much emergency support will be necessary in case of another pandemic crisis. 

“It’s still important to understand that census data is important for crisis response. It ensures more equitable help. Tying that link is important,” said Vergara. 

Those most disproportionately affected by COVID-19 are also the least likely to respond to the census, she said. Latinos have continued to test positive for the highly infectious respiratory disease at higher rates than any other demographic. County officials believe the trend is due to Latinos being a younger community, working on the front lines and unable to social distance while living in crowded homes. 

Outreach methods

To overcome these hurdles, local nonprofits have had to get creative with messaging. The Pacific Islanders Complete Count Committee of San Mateo County has turned to the social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, to host a Voices of Oceania Musical Series. Additionally, banners have been hung around testing sites and fliers placed in food drive bags. 

The nonprofit Nuestra Casa de East Palo Alto has turned to Facebook as well, hosting weekly raffles where a resident can be entered to win a $50 gift card and other items if they prove they’ve completed their census form. 

“Platforms that are more beneficial are Facebook and Instagram ... to continue to spread messaging around about the importance of ... the census. … We’ve been around for 18 years and we’re a trusted messenger,” said Miriam Yupanqui, the executive director of Nuestra Casa de East Palo Alto. 

She noted that while the platforms have been a vital tool for reaching hard to count communities, face-to-face interactions are best for connecting with communities already apprehensive to participate. 

“Particularly with our hard-to-count communities, they want to see us in-person to ask key questions and for that reason we continue to have a physical presence to the extent that we can,” said Yupanqui. “We do that through our distribution program, our food distribution site and we help on the spot … weekly from 10 to 15 individuals.” 

Other outreach efforts include car caravans involving residents and census messengers decorating their vehicles, driving through hard-to-count areas and attracting as much attention as possible. Organizations also partner with school districts to encourage students to take information home to their parents. 

The next step for census data collection begins Aug. 11 in which enumerators will visit the homes of individuals who have not yet responded. Enumerators will be properly dressed in personal protective equipment but the best way to keep visitors from coming to your home is to self-respond, said Vergara. 

If you have not taken the U.S. 2020 Census visit for more information.

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