March 10, 2010 | WNYC | Original Article

Census 2010: A Queens Campaign Seeks to Get Everyone Counted, Including Illegals

NEW YORK, NY March 10, 2010 —As part of this year's census, the city has launched the biggest grassroots campaign in history to count immigrants who're here illegally. One focus of the effort is northwest Queens: neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, where there’s been a surge of new Hispanic immigrants since 2000. In the past, many have failed to send in their census forms. As part of our occasional series Feet in Two Worlds, Annie Correal went to see how the campaign is going.

It’s rush hour in Corona, Queens, and hundreds of people stream off the 7 train. They’re mostly Hispanic – young and male. As they pour onto Roosevelt Avenue, people hand them flyers for a dentist’s office, a new music venue, and the census.

"Trabajos de censo, trabajos de censo, census jobs...," they say.

They’re giving out what look like business cards that say U.S. Census Jobs! -– part of a massive effort by the census bureau to get everyone counted, including people who live here illegally. But just a block away, one of the people they’re trying to reach says he has no interest in being counted.

(Photo: Humberto Arrellano, El Diario/La Prensa)

He’s 25, undocumented, from Mexico, and he won’t give me his name. From the nook in the wall where he sells CDs he tells me he’d rather stay the way he is –- hidden.

"Me quitaron mi permiso…llegó un policía y me dijo ¿sabes que? No puedes estar aquí. Tus papeles. Yo dije, 'No tengo papeles, yo tengo permiso de vender pero yo soy ilegal.' Me arrestó, y ya en la corte fue otra cosa."

He used to have a food cart, but more than a year ago, he says, he was arrested and fined for parking where he wasn’t supposed to be. Because of that brush with the system, he says, I just want to stay underground and leave it at that.

In the 2000 census, parts of northwest Queens had one the lowest mail response rates in the city -– only 40% of people mailed back their questionnaires.

Now the city hopes what they call "trusted messenger" organizations can convince the area’s newest arrivals to respond. Valeria Treves is the director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, and she says she’s sending out census volunteers to all the places undocumented immigrants go.

"Our community members are themselves going to be the ones walking at the day laborers stop, tabling at the train stations, going to the taco trucks, going to the Herbalife meetings, going to all the places where immigrants or undocumented immigrants might congregate and talking to them about the importance of the census."

Valeria Treves is the director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, an organization in Queens that is sending out volunteers from the community to talk to undocumented immigrants about the importance of the census. (Photo: Humberto Arrellano, El Diario/La Prensa)

The census is depending on the street smarts of groups like NICE –- they’re the ones who know, for example, that new immigrants flock to Herbalife meetings to become vitamin sellers. And Treves says her group also knows housing in this neighborhood.

"And this is where it gets interesting with census issues. The conditions are very overcrowded. There’s a lot of informal and, I would say, for many people, unconventional rooming or shared housing situations."

Marta Moreira is 25, from Ecuador. She shows me around the cramped apartment where she lives with her husband and daughter and several strangers. It’s little more than four small bedrooms with a bed in the hall. Marta and a housemate named Francisco say they don’t want to be living this way, but jobs have dried up and it’s too expensive to live alone.

"No hay como vivir solos. Ay, la situación de la vida se puso difícil. No es como antes. Antes se vivía tranquilo, uno ganaba, trabajaba tranquilamente la semana completa. Ahora no hay eso, yo trabajo un día, dos días por suerte, ahora no hay eso. Yo hasta tres semanas no he trabajado. Es un poco complicado. Realmente es un poco complicado. Porque la renta se paga cada primero y es un poco difícil a veces cuando no hay trabajo. Yo estaba mucho tiempo antes sin trabajo. Y es difícil. Pero ahora a dios gracias tengo trabajo, pero es dificil cuando uno está sin trabajo."

I ask Marta the first question on the census form: How many people will be living here on April 1?

Marta Moreira lives with her husband, daughter, and several housemates in a small apartment in Queens. Overcrowded living conditions make census counting harder. (Photo: Annie Correal)

"Yo pienso que somos las siete personas que estamos aquí, porque nadie ha dicho que se va a mudar o algo así. Entonces estamos aqui los siete.

She says she thinks seven. She lives with six adults and her baby -– and she says she doesn’t think anyone is planning to move.

When it comes to the census, a home like this presents more than one issue. First, who is the head of household, the person who fills out the census form? Marta says she’d play that role, but could she provide information about her housemates? The faces change so often that as she points from door to door, she has trouble remembering each of their names.

"Ustedes saben los nombres de las personas que viven aquí? De todas, de todas, no. Bueno allá, se que alguien se llama Sandy, acá mi vecino que es Francisco. De allí, no, la verdad no -- creo que la tercera vecina es Yolanda, creo. No, no sé más."

Picture tens of thousands of housing units like this and you get an idea of why they call this neighborhood hard to count. Still, state Assemblyman José Peralta, who represents this area, says he thinks this year’s count will be more accurate than it was 10 years ago, in part because of the "trusted messengers."

"I’ve been working closely with them to make sure that we spread the word that it’s okay, because the bottom line is, if we’re not counted, we lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in this neighborhood and those dollars are necessary so that we can fund more of the schools, so we can fund our hospitals, so we can pave our streets, so we can improve our quality of life," Peralta says.

And the city’s new census coordinator, Stacey Cumberbatch, says it really is safe.

"It’s confidential, and it doesn’t ask anything about citizenship or legal status at all, whatsoever," Cumberbatch says.

That message may not have convinced everyone, but in this part of Queens, it has certainly reached a lot of people.

A TV commercial reminds people that the census can bring money into their community and assures them that their answers are protected by federal law. It’s been played on Spanish-language TV and along with the posters, flyers, and reminders from community leaders, its message has reached women in aprons behind food carts, day laborers waiting on Roosevelt Avenue, Marta, Francisco, and their many housemates.

Before I leave their apartment, Francisco pulls out a canvas bag with the Census 2010 logo. He got it from a local organization, with a copy of this year’s questionnaire inside. Flipping through the pages, he remembers when he was on the other side -- working as a census counter in Ecuador.

Francisco Avila, an immigrant from Ecuador, says he'll participate in the 2010 Census. The Census Bureau has launched an extensive, grassroots campaign to reach people like Avila. (Photo: Annie Correal)


"Nos seguían a piedra, a bala. Me acuerdo en el censo del '80 nos siguieron a bala…porque nos fuimos a un lugar de un cerro que había gente brava. No se imaginaban lo que iba a pasar. Nos fuimos a llegar directamente a la casa de ellos…Nos sacaron a bala tuvimos que correr lejos, como un kilometro…corrimos con los caballos."

In 1980, he says, he was sent way out into the provinces, on horseback, to count a ranch where the people were hot-tempered. When he arrived they came out with their guns and chased him away.

"Allí si era jodido la censada. No es como el censo aquí. Aquí está más fácil.

Now, there, the census was tough, he says. Here it’s much easier to count people.

Francisco may not speak for everyone. But here he is -– an undocumented laborer who was caught in a workplace raid, spent a month in jail, and paid a $10,000 fine -- and yet he’s not afraid. He says he’s going to make sure he counts.