The government is fumbling some efforts to assure immigrants that U.S. census data won't be used against them, including gaps in outreach and foreign language guides that refer to the decennial count as an investigation.
With the launch of the head count weeks away, the Census Bureau's outreach has been falling short in at least a dozen major cities, such as Chicago, Dallas, New York, San Jose, Calif., and Seattle, according to a report released Monday by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Many of their states are on the cusp of gaining or losing U.S. House seats and face a redrawing of legislative boundaries that may tilt the balance of political power.
The legal group is partly critical of the Obama administration, citing its refusal to give fuller assurances that census data would be kept confidential and to suspend large-scale immigration raids during the count — as was done in the 2000 census. AALDEF said it wasn't ruling out legal action to get stronger guarantees.
The census officially began last month in parts of rural Alaska. Most of the nation will receive their forms by mail the week of March 15.
"We have heard a lot of speeches by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and the census director saying the census is confidential. But speeches and Web postings do not have the force of law," said Glenn Magpantay, an AALDEF program director, in a telephone interview. "Our concern is how much risk immigrants are putting themselves at."
Other groups agree more work needs to be done.
"We are running the risk of a real undercount," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "The next few weeks will be critical."
The Census Bureau is printing instruction guides and sample forms in dozens of different languages for use in community help centers, since one in five residents speak a language other than English at home. But there have been errors due to poor translations, including material for Vietnamese speakers that describe the census as a "government investigation."
The agency was able to correct its Web material two weeks ago after groups pointed out the problem, but it's too late to fix the paper forms, according to the report. There are more than 1.1 million Vietnamese in the U.S., mostly clustered in California and Texas.
Other gaps included a lack of specialists for the Bangladeshi community in Detroit; the nation's third largest Korean-American population in Chicago; and the south Asian and Cambodian groups in Philadelphia and Rhode Island. In Virginia, when groups cited a need for census specialists for their Korean and Vietnamese communities, the agency responded by hiring someone who spoke Chinese.
Responding, the Census Bureau has emphasized it is devoting a large amount of its $133 million ad campaign to racial and ethnic audiences. It also partnered with more than 150,000 business and community groups, hoping to build trust in its message that filling out the 10-question census form is safe and easy to complete.
The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, has made clear they will not ask the Homeland Security Department to hold off on large-scale raids as they successfully did in 2000. That has drawn consternation from immigrant groups, particularly as it has become unlikely that Congress will take up immigration reform this year.
To encourage participation, Census Director Robert Groves on Monday visited neighborhoods along the U.S.-Mexico border near Laredo, Texas. As many as half the residents were missed there in 2000 because they had little knowledge of English and feared being turned over to immigration agents.
The recent criticisms by AALDEF and other groups underscore the intense political pressure to have a tally free of the smallest margin of error. Even a 1 percent undercount means 3 million people are missed, typically minorities and poor people whose communities are then shortchanged in political representation and federal aid.
Other trouble spots:
—Some black activists are upset about the use of "Negro" on the census form, in which respondents identifying their race must check a listing of "Black, African Am., or Negro." Groves says the term was not meant to offend but to be more inclusive since thousands in the 2000 census self-identified as "Negro"; the agency is now studying whether to drop the term after this year.
—College students are getting special attention, as recent polls show that disinterested young people may prove to be among the hardest to count. Colleges in Minnesota, Texas, California and other states are organizing new campaigns to make sure students fill out their forms correctly. Officials also want census-takers to make their rounds to college dorms sooner before students disappear for summer break.
—Latino groups are worried the Census Bureau's ad campaign may neglect communities with higher numbers of immigrants in poverty. Census-takers also may be less adept in navigating some areas because of an agency requirement that employees be U.S. citizens.
In 2000, the Census Bureau noted for the first time an overcount of 1.3 million people, due mostly to duplicate counts of more affluent whites with multiple residences. About 4.5 million people were ultimately missed, primarily lower-income minorities.
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