July 22 2020

Immigrants, respond to Trump’s Census intimidation and be counted


By Chuck Park
New York Daily News |
Jul 22, 2020 at 2:30 PM\\


Almost every Saturday morning for the last two months, I’ve donned a fresh surgical mask and latex gloves; loaded up a “United States Census 2020”-branded bag with hand sanitizer, cellular data-enabled iPads and flyers; and walked the 0.18 square miles of census tract 871 in downtown Flushing to implore my fellow immigrant New Yorkers to complete the decennial survey of our nation’s population.

On a typical outing, my teammates from the non-profit MinKwon Center for Community Action and I engage 200 to 300 people — mostly first-generation immigrants speaking Spanish and Mandarin — standing in line for the La Jornada food pantry, which winds past the 7-Train station, bubble tea shops, and grocery stores on Main St. and 40th Road to end at the pantry’s distribution site within the Bland Houses public housing complex.

Over the last eight weeks alone, we’ve spoken to thousands of individuals, handed out hundreds of Census flyers and free masks and hung dozens of posters in this one census tract. Beyond in-person outreach, we’ve phoned, texted and sent postcards, translated into simplified Chinese, Korean and Spanish, to more than 10,000 Flushing residents encouraging them to respond.

The result? A measly 4% bump in Census response since May 16. The total response rate for tract 871 since the Census self-response period began in March? Just 33.5% as of July 21, far behind the national response rate of 62.3%, and New York City’s 53.6%. Tract 871 is even lagging its own pace from 2010, when about half of households there completed the survey.

President Trump didn’t need to issue a memorandum on July 21 to exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 Census. Immigrants were already not responding.

Of course, much of this is thanks to earlier actions by this administration to cultivate fear of the Census within immigrant communities. Most notable among these was the attempt to add a citizenship question, with the ultimate purpose of redrawing electoral district boundaries to be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” per deceased Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller.

Though the addition was struck down by the Supreme Court as “arbitrary and capricious,” the episode demonstrated the administration’s commitment to use any means available to weaken immigrant Americans and empower Non-Hispanic white Republicans.

More accidentally, the president’s failure to lead any coherent national response to the COVID-19 pandemic has also suppressed immigrant response to the Census. His incompetence allowed outbreaks to burn through American cities, ravaging the immigrant neighborhoods to which essential workers returned after long shifts delivering food, caring for seniors or disinfecting subways.

Tract 871 in Flushing, as well as nearby tracts in Corona and Elmhurst, have been so devastated by COVID-19 that daily survival, and not a decennial government survey, has been front of mind for many residents since March.

Moreover, the pandemic has prevented New York City’s community-based organizations from canvassing undercounted neighborhoods to encourage response.

To be sure, Trump’s racist policies notwithstanding, foreign-born New Yorkers were always going to be a challenging population to count. Many arrived within the last decade and have never participated in a prior Census, while others live in fluid, informal housing arrangements and miss official mailers. Still others speak a language for which the U.S. Census Bureau does not provide a dedicated response website or phone number.

And Asian-American communities in particular have a long memory of the Census as a tool of government surveillance, detention and internment. Indeed, in 2010, under a very different president, response rates in the immigrant-dense census tracts of New York City were still significantly lower than the national average.

If there is a silver lining in Trump’s latest order — or if we can knit one — it is that it brings renewed attention to the alarming 2020 undercount while there is yet time to act. We New Yorkers can be both proud and petty, and the knowledge that Donald Trump really, really doesn’t want us to fill out the Census could motivate more of us to do so. The Census response period ends on October 31. Complete it now at www.my2020census.gov, and make sure your friends, family, and undocumented neighbors also complete the Census. Better yet, join me in Flushing this Saturday.

Park, a Flushing native and a former U.S. diplomat, is civic participation manager at the MinKwon Center for Community Action.