February 8, 2010 | San Diego Union Tribune | Original Article

Outreach programs mobilized for census

In the 10 years since the last nationwide census, events and policy changes have driven a new fear into some immigrants, particularly among those who are living in the country illegally.

It’s a concern that has been building as the April 1 starting date of the 2010 census draws near, and local and national groups are preparing outreach campaigns that they hope will ensure an accurate count of immigrants.

During the last census, for example, Latinos were undercounted by 1 percent to 2 percent, which adds up to nearly a million people, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which is based in Los Angeles.

Vargas was in San Diego last week meeting with local groups to promote census outreach. The concerns are much the same as before: that immigrants might not step forward if they are here illegally for fear of being reported to authorities, or that individuals who don’t understand how the process works will underreport their family members, particularly minors. Only this time, after years of increasingly strict immigration enforcement policies, the fear of some immigrants not wanting to stand out is even greater, Vargas said.

“This is the first census post-9/11, so we know there has been a heightened sense of government scrutiny of the public. We have the Patriot Act,” he said. “No census data can be shared with any other government agency, but we know there are many folks who have doubts about that.”

The basic demographic information taken on the census questionnaire includes a person’s name, gender, age, racial category and address, Vargas said. Questionnaires are sent by mail, after which census takers visit households that did not respond.

An accurate population count is essential in that census data determine the level of representation an area has in national and state government; census data also directly affect how federal and state funds are directed to communities for neighborhood improvements, education, health care and other services.

Nationally, NALEO has mounted a campaign called “Ya es Hora,” Spanish for “Now is the Time,” with promotional help from Spanish-language television networks. In San Diego County, a number of community groups have begun outreach efforts, and committees have been set up to work with the government on outreach.

Estela De Los Rios, chairwoman of the census committee established in East County, said members are contacting libraries, churches, schools, supermarkets and other places where people gather, and are disseminating information in English, Spanish and Arabic. The idea is to reach the region’s sizable Latino and Middle Eastern immigrant populations, she said.

“These are the ones we are targeting because they are hard to count,” said De Los Rios, executive director of the Center for Social Advocacy in El Cajon, an organization that deals with fair housing issues.

The South Bay Forum, a political action committee, has been involved in outreach in South County. Plans are to work with public agencies and community health clinics to disseminate information, said Jose Preciado, the forum’s president.

“There may be some relation between the populations that are harder to count and those (the agencies and clinics) serve,” Preciado said.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that compared with white and black Americans, Latinos interviewed were significantly less familiar with what the census is. Only 66 percent of Hispanics interviewed said they had heard of the U.S. census, compared with 78 percent of non-Hispanic black respondents and 88 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Leslie Berestein: (619) 542-4579; leslie.berestein@uniontrib.com