April 13, 2010 | Press of Atlantic City | Original Article

Southern New Jersey Hispanic groups reach out to promote census

Walk into the Latina Deli and Market on Main Street in Pleasantville and the first thing you see are the colorful ads pasted across the entrance. But this year, there’s another sticker with a more important message:

“U.S. Census 2010,” it reads. “Para progresar lo tenemos que enviar”: “We move forward when you send it back.”

The ad is just a small part of the widespread effort to get the word out about the census to the Hispanic community, one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the state and nation. About 16 percent of New Jersey’s residents are Hispanic. Part of the effort to get Hispanics to respond to the census involve quelling some fears that census information could be used against them.

As deli employee Ivan Arias, of Pleasantville, explained it: “You don’t have to be scared to send it back.”

With less than a week left to send back census forms — after Friday, census workers will be sent door-to-door — Census Bureau spokeswoman Yvette Nunez detailed some of the outreach efforts being made to ensure the “actual enumeration” mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

“The Census Bureau is responsible for counting everyone in the nation, regardless of citizenship status,” said Nunez, who works for the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia Region, which includes southern New Jersey.

“The Hispanic community and the recent immigrant community have been identified as one of the ‘hard-to-count’ populations that tend to respond lower than the national average,” Nunez said.

The reasoning, Regional Director Nunzio Cerniglia has said, is that transient workers and undocumented immigrants — citizenship status or not — “use the schools, they use the facilities and they use the roads.” Without a proper count, facilities in any given region may be overburdened.

So besides the steps the census has taken nationally — including census forms in Spanish and four other languages and bilingual questionnaires sent to 13 million households — a census office in Northfield has hired bilingual specialists to help area residents who need assistance.

They have also reached out to local groups, including Casa PRAC in Vineland and the Puerto Rican Action Committee in Woodbine — although it seems not everyone is on board.

Bert Lopez, a board member of the Hispanic Alliance of New Jersey and host of a Hispanic-focused TV show, “Latino Motion,” said that some in the Hispanic community are protesting the census because of worries the information will be shared with other agencies.

“There are efforts in both directions,” Lopez said. “But I’m helping to promote the census. I had the census director on my (Channel 40) TV show to inform the community of the importance of the census. We want to counteract the negative and false information out there. ... The main issue for undocumented immigrants is that the census would be used by immigration (authorities) to round up the undocumented. That certainly is not the case.”

Eduvigis Salce, a Galloway resident and owner of the Amoros party store in Pleasantville, said she has done her part — “I got my letter and sent it back” — but she’s aware of the worries some in the community have.

“Maybe they need to send people to the school, so they can give (the information) to parents,” she said.

Nunez stressed that the Census Bureau “does not share information with immigration, law enforcement, the IRS, or any agency, federal or local. All census employees are under an oath of confidentiality for life. They must keep any information confidential or be subject to a five-year imprisonment or a $250,000 fine.”

Tony Melendez, executive director of Casa PRAC in Vineland, said the organization is working to inform the community about the census.

“We have a census representative here when clients come in,” Melendez said. “We’re passing out census information sheets, and we have banners hanging all over the place.”

At the Puerto Rican Action Committee office in Woodbine, Director David Rodriguez got down to the basics: an accurate count means more money for a state and district and more accurate representation in government.

“We are encouraging everyone, not only Hispanics but everyone — because we serve not just the Hispanic community but the community as a whole — to fill out the census form,” Rodriguez said. About $40 billion per year in federal money will be distributed to the states based on census information for “schools, recreation and social service groups such as ours,” Rodriguez said.

At the Latina Deli and Market, Arias said he has definitely seen and heard the messages going out from the Census Bureau and other groups in Spanish language media. He also understood the importance of being counted.

“The Spanish (speaking) community is growing, especially here in Pleasantville,” he said. “A few years ago, you didn’t see Hispanic people walking down the street, but now you see a lot of them.”

In the end, the message on some of the Puerto Rican Action Committee’s T-shirts — paid for through a small government grant, Rodriguez said — send the most succinct message about individuals’ responsibility to be counted.

“Esta en nuestras manos,” they read. “It’s in our hands.”