Latinos to Census Bureau: Count on Us

Creating trust and assuring confidentiality are the biggest challenges facing the U.S. Census Bureau in gathering an accurate count of Latinos for the decennial population count next year.

Those were among the key points raised at a briefing on the 2010 census organized Wednesday by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in Washington, D.C. Latinos have been under-counted in previous census counts and efforts by LULAC and other national Latino organizations are aimed at making the next population count more accurate.

“April 1, 2010, is a critical date for all of us,” said Brent Wilkes, executive director of LULAC, referring to Census Day. “We have to make sure that every person is counted because it’s going to transform what is known about our diverse and growing population.”

Latinos represent an estimated 15 percent of the U.S. population, or 45.5 million people.

Wilkes noted that an accurate census count in 2010 is critical because those numbers will be used to address the needs of communities for the coming decade. The federal government uses census data to allocate about $300 billion in funds every year for vital services, including disaster relief, health care, schools, transportation, libraries and senior centers.

Census data is also important for engaging the population in the democratic process, panelists said. About 50,000 Latinos reach the age of 18 every year and are eligible to vote. “This information is very important for the census because they become voters and can fully participate in the electoral process,” said William Ramos of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

Local communities have an important role in making sure the Census Bureau counts everyone, said Arnold Jackson, associate director of the decennial census, and some communities are already ahead of his agency. “We have one challenge left and it’s sending the message that the census is not something we do to the communities. It’s a process that we are turning over to your group.”

However, there is a bigger challenge for the U.S. Census when it comes to counting members of the Latino community, Jackson said. “We have to overcome issues of trust, of authenticity and confidentiality.”

Panelists agreed that many Latinos, regardless of their immigration status, will be suspicious of the letters the Census will be sending out to households in March 2010. If they don’t respond to it, the Census Bureau will follow up by sending a specialist to their address for an interview. Such visits sometimes help the agency locate new members of the community.

“For Latinos, the trust issue is humongous,” Ramos said. “People knocking at your door can give you a fast heart beat. We have to alleviate those fears by making sure that they participate in the process.”

Having Latino census representatives participate in the count makes a difference, Ramos said, especially because immigrants are cautious about their legal status. “They are thinking, ‘Who am I putting in jeopardy?’” he said. “We have to make sure they know all the information is confidential.”

One of the Census Bureau’s strategies for overcoming such fears is to deploy bilingual specialists around the country to do follow-up home visits. The agency has already hired personnel who speak 55 of 59 languages it has determined are needed for interviewing. “We want to make sure that the person who comes to your door looks just like you,” Ramos said.

In communities where Latinos represent more than 20 percent of the population, the agency will send the forms in both English and Spanish. Communities with smaller percentages of Latinos or other non-English-speaking groups can request bilingual forms.

The Census Bureau is also setting up local offices, with 145 already open and a total of 485 expected to be operating by the end of the year. These offices, located in the middle of communities, will help the agency do the hyper-local part of the job. But they also offer job opportunities.

“Hispanics are less than 6 percent of the government workforce,” said Edna Camino, chair of the LULAC Census Committee. “We need to identify qualified Hispanics to fill both temporary and long-term positions. This would create a fully diverse workforce that goes beyond ethnic barriers.”

Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy and a member of the Census Bureau’s Hispanic Advisory Committee, said that ethnic media are some of the Census Bureau’s best allies in spreading accurate information about the process and engaging the Latino population.

"Because of the fear communities have, we need to develop an inside-out strategy,” he said, “so organizations, not just the government, can also reach out to people.”

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