Who Counts in the 2020 Census? | Many Barriers Could Undermine a Fair and Accurate Count in Virginia

This blog post is the second part of a three-part series “Who Counts in the 2020 Census?” where we interviewed local leaders spearheading the fight in their communities to obtain a fair and accurate count of everyone who lives in Virginia.

There are many barriers that could undermine a fair and accurate Census count in Virginia. Those include the Trump administration adding a citizenship question to the Census, lack of funding for Census outreach, housing instability, lack of language interpretation for immigrants, and the fact that most of the 2020 Census will be conducted online, barring many rural and elderly residents from participating.

A lot of people don’t want to participate in the Census because they don’t trust  the government and don’t want the government to have their personal information. It takes a lot of work and trust building from community organizations and Census enumerators to convince people to participate. That’s why funding for community outreach is essential if we want to encourage participation and prevent an undercount.

To explore more about the barriers facing the  2020 Census, we spoke with Monica Sarmiento and Sookyung Oh, leaders of Virginia’s immigrant community. Monica is Executive Director of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Sookyung is the Area Director for the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.

The Trump Administration’s efforts to include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census is an attack on immigrant communities that is purposefully designed to prevent them from participating in the Census. Why are people suspicious of taking part in the Census?

Monica: I think a lot of that has to do with lack of confidence in this particular administration. In the past the Census was used by other administrations for reasons that a lot of Americans thought were unethical. A lot of that really stems from the Roosevelt administration using Census data for the location of Japanese Americans for the creation of Japanese internment camps. And this particular administration has stated multiple times that they would like to be able to use the citizenship question in a variety of ways. President Trump was quoted saying “Without the citizenship question, what’s the point of having the census?” It insinuates that there should be fear for those who are not US Citizens. Ultimately, that’s a trust issue that a  lot of individuals, regardless of immigration status have. It’s up to Congress if that information is made public or not. After the Japanese internment camps, Congress passed a slew of legislation saying that Census info can not be made public for like 70 years or so.. As of right now, we don’t anticipate that this Congress will do that but that’s enough to stir fear in these communities.

Sookyung: The Census data was used in WWII to incarcerate Japanese Americans. After that Congress codified very strict confidentiality laws but folks are still not sure. When you have a head of state like Trump, who will issue a national emergency to build a wall, folks are justifiably scared about how the Census responses could be used Currently, Asian Americans are the group most likely to say that their answers to the Census “will be used against them” according to the Census Bureau’s own research about attitudes toward the 2020 Census, potential barriers that may inhibit participation, and possible motivators of responding.

The citizenship question isn’t  just going to impact immigrants. For example there’s more than 140,000 citizens who live with at least one family member who is undocumented in Virginia. There are thousands of mixed-status families who may not participate because of the citizenship question and they’re citizens!

With the inclusion of a citizenship question, what does it say about a country that states “If you are not a citizen, you do not count”? They’re sending a message that you don’t count politically even though we know that people who are not citizens can be very politically active participants in our society through organizing, through grassroots lobbying, through advocacy, and even showing up at your kid’s school and being part of a PTA.  That’s all representation.

In 2020,the Census Bureau will be urging most households to submit their Census responses online via the internet. How does the change in conducting a count online impact those with limited internet access?

Monica:  Senior citizens and people who live in rural jurisdictions and don’t have access to the Internet are going to be impacted by that. There is a lot of concern regarding how will security play into that. We will need  a lot of community involvement, not just from only organizational leaders community organizations but also from colleges, libraries, university campuses who will have to open up their computer labs to be able to help people fill out the Census.

Sookyung: A couple of different ways. There are people with smartphones who might not have wi-fi at home and rely on public places for Internet access. There is a concern of data security when using public wi-fi network. There are parts of Virginia that have no Internet access. There’s also some question as to how a website will handle all these people completing the Census online starting on April 1st. How do we know that the website won’t crash like Healthcare.gov? Folks also have the option to call and if you don’t fill out the Census in a certain amount of time, an enumerator will come to your door to fill it out.

How do we overcome some of the barriers to achieve a more accurate count?

Sookyung: In some ways, it’s unfair to community groups to answer that question because these barriers have been years in the making. And it involves factors that we have no control over. Like whether or not a citizenship question is included or not. There is massive distrust of  the government. It didn’t just happen overnight and ergo, it won’t disappear overnight. One thing that Virginia didn’t do to overcome those barriers was to allocate any funding for Census outreach. So in many ways, we have to do it ourselves. We know that for Asian Americans it is going to be particularly challenging. The Census Bureau’s own research about attitudes about the 2020 Census found that Asian Americans were the least likely of any racial group to report that they intended to complete the form and that our communities were also the least likely to express familiarity with the census.

At NAKASEC VA, we plan to directly  educate Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders at community hotspots like daycare centers, senior living homes, churches,or businesses to have people start talking about the Census. We will also do direct canvasses starting in the spring in hard-to-count communities that also have high AAPI populations.

Tune in next week to read the final part of our three-part series,  “Who Counts in the 2020 Census” to see how an undercount will impact Virginian communities.