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The Census in the Latino Community

Experts share the latest efforts to get Latinos counted and why it’s so important.

April 13, 2020

A Span­ish version of this inter­view is here.

Every 10 years, the census takes a snap­shot of the coun­try to determ­ine how our communit­ies are repres­en­ted in state­houses and Congress, as well as how much federal fund­ing they get for everything from schools to roads and hospit­als.

The coun­try’s large Latino popu­la­tion can claim its fair share of this polit­ical power and fund­ing only if every­one gets coun­ted, but many Lati­nos don’t parti­cip­ate in the count, often out of fear that the govern­ment may illeg­ally try to use responses against undoc­u­mented immig­rants.

The Bren­nan Center’s Mireya Navarro talked to three experts about how to improve the Latino count this spring amidst the coronavirus pandemic: Carlos Menchaca, co-chair of the 2020 Census Task Force of the New York City Coun­cil; Emely Paez, director of govern­ment affairs and civic engage­ment for the Hispanic Feder­a­tion; and Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr., asso­ci­ate coun­sel at Latino­Justice-PRLDEF.

This inter­view has been edited for length and clar­ity.

Emely Paez
Emely Paez

How has the coronavirus crisis affected the effort to get a higher response rate among Latino house­holds in New York City, the epicen­ter of the pandemic in the coun­try?

Emely Paez: The health crisis has created both oppor­tun­it­ies and chal­lenges. It has defin­itely affected outreach — being on the street, enga­ging canvass­ers and talk­ing to people and our neigh­bors on the ground. However, because people are being advised to stay home, we can maxim­ize the use of our virtual outlets — our social media, our mass media — work­ing with organ­iz­a­tions and our radio stations to engage communit­ies.

Carlos Menchaca
Carlos Menchaca

Carlos Menchaca: I think this is going to be a silver lining. We all follow each other on Instagram and Face­book. People are like, “This was easy, do it your­self.” Then people are respond­ing and saying, “I did it.” Then they’re saying, “Go get 10 people to do it.” That’s the kind of organic grass­roots effort that is happen­ing in this little cham­ber of commu­nic­a­tion that we’re all in. People’s ears are perked right now.

Lati­nos are among the groups persist­ently under­coun­ted in the census. What are some of the obstacles to getting full Latino parti­cip­a­tion in 2020?

Jorge Luis Vasquez
Jorge Luis Vasquez

Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr.: We recently held live telethons with differ­ent media outlets, and the number one ques­tion we got was whether there is a citizen­ship ques­tion on the 2020 census and whether someone who is not a U.S. citizen can parti­cip­ate in the census. We need to educate: no citizen­ship ques­tion, and it does­n’t matter where you were born or whether you are a U.S. citizen.

Menchaca: The first thing that I hear is, “Oh, the census? Oh, that’s not for me. I’m not going to do that. I’m an immig­rant.” The second thing I hear is that this is not some­thing that is import­ant. “I don’t have time for that.”

There’s a real discon­nect about the power of the census. People only exper­i­ence the fear compon­ent, which is their fear that this is going to be inform­a­tion that’s going to be housed some­where in the govern­ment and used for deport­a­tion machine efforts. What they don’t see is that not only are they protec­ted, but they are also unlock­ing thou­sands of dollars per person for their neigh­bor­hood. Low trust in govern­ment because of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, low access to inter­net and computers — those barri­ers don’t go away.

How are you trying to break through those barri­ers?

Paez: In addi­tion to the virtual plat­forms and mass media, we’re using a peer-to-peer texting system and phone banks. We will be texting in Span­ish and in English the mobile devices of those who have already signed up for message systems within the Hispanic Feder­a­tion. We’re talk­ing about the indi­vidu­als who have come to our office or have been a part of our universe of 74 member agen­cies through­out the five boroughs. The goal is to make sure that folks are so fed up with listen­ing about the census, that they’re just going to say, “Yeah, I give up! I surrender! You can have my 10 minutes to complete the census!”

Menchaca: What we are doing right now in the city is really retool­ing, so that we move all of the oper­a­tions from door-knock­ing, which was going to be a massive compon­ent to this whole thing, to doing it online. We’re just at the begin­ning, so I’m hoping to present better data over time as we get to summer that show we’re actu­ally doing a good job. We are rely­ing on our rela­tion­ships with community organ­iz­a­tions to connect to their members.

Emely, you’ve said young Lati­nos have a special role to play within immig­rant famil­ies.

Paez: Young Lati­nos are family navig­at­ors. Having gone through the educa­tion system in the United States, they are more famil­iar with Amer­ican culture. They can help their parents under­stand what are the myths and what are the facts. , and are so vital in making sure that our homes are coun­ted. It’s import­ant for our communit­ies — Guatem­alans, Colom­bi­ans, Domin­ic­ans, Puerto Ricans — to under­stand that our famil­ies may have certain cultures, but when we are here in the United States, there is one culture, right?

What are the consequences of miss­ing the true number of Lati­nos in the coun­try?

Vasquez: My home state of New York is at risk of losing more than $2,600 per person annu­ally for every indi­vidual that’s under­coun­ted. And that’s just from 10 federal programs. The coun­try cannot afford for Lati­nos not to count them­selves.

Menchaca: The stakes are big. A drop in Latino and Span­ish-speak­ing community census counts is going to mean a drop in dollars for health­care, for educa­tion. So much of what I’ve seen in my time as a coun­cil member is the inab­il­ity to build schools in immig­rant communit­ies. That’s because we don’t have all the fund­ing that we need from the federal govern­ment. Then there’s all the infra­struc­ture that the federal govern­ment can bring to a city, the hous­ing, the roads, the parks in our neigh­bor­hoods. That leads to repres­ent­a­tion. We need more congres­sional repres­ent­a­tion.

What is your main message to Lati­nos to encour­age them to respond to the census mailer?

Vasquez: Every­one has an equal say in parti­cip­at­ing in the census. Every­one has an equal oblig­a­tion.

Menchaca: The message right now is, if you are at home right now feel­ing help­less, feel­ing like you’re trapped, then the thing that you can do to help your­self and your community and your city is to get people to fill out the census. That’s one thing that’s going to save our city in this a massive economic down­turn that’s on its way.

Paez: Ten ques­tions will impact our communit­ies for the next 10 years. The census tells a story about the Latino communit­ies, past, present, and future.