January 29, 2010 | San Diego Union-Tribune | Original Article

We owe it to ourselves to count all

As they do to people living elsewhere across the United States, the coming months present to those of us who call San Diego County home a once-in-a-decade opportunity to take an honest look at ourselves.

I refer, of course, to the 2010 Census.

From the time that Congress first mandated “the enumeration of the inhabitants of the United States” in 1790, Americans have understood that there is nothing more basic to our democracy than the notion that every individual counts. The decennial census gives us a chance to consider whether our democracy really works for all of us.

But this will be a difficult year to obtain an accurate count all of the region’s residents. Because San Diego County is home to so many immigrant, refugee and cross-border households, it has been ranked by the U.S.Census Bureau as the 11th “hardest-to-count” county in the United States.

Gaps of language and literacy are the most obvious obstacles to securing immigrant participation in the census, but there are many more: limited experience with, and sense of belonging to, the civic process; economic hardship and dislocation, from which immigrants suffer more than most; a sense of frustration and confusion over the limited choices offered by the census form for specifying racial and ethnic identity.

Worse, a generalized atmosphere of anti-immigrant sentiment and heightened enforcement of immigration law will make it even more difficult to convince many immigrants and refugees to participate. Some immigrant rights advocates have gone so far as to urge immigrants to boycott the census altogether. If even a single household member believes participation in the census may jeopardize his or her immigration status, the entire household may refuse to be enumerated.

We cannot afford to have our fellow residents go uncounted. If we allow this to happen, we stand to lose out on our political representation (states use census data to draw political boundaries), and on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal government disbursements. For each person not counted, according to theBrookings Institute, San Diego County will lose an estimated $12,000 over the next 10 years in federal funding alone. State, county and local governments also use census data in designing and funding public programs. In times like these, it just doesn’t make sense for San Diego County residents to leave money on the table for others to take.

Across the state, foundations are supporting outreach campaigns to promote immigrant participation in the census. Here in San Diego County, the Foundation for Change, working with the California Endowment and other local funders, is spearheading a campaign: “Make Yourself Count/Hágase Contar” to mobilize trusted community leaders as passionate advocates for census participation. (The slogan for the campaign is drawn from a national media campaign sponsored by NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.)

Through this campaign, dozens of organizations with deep roots in San Diego County’s immigrant and refugee communities will receive grants totaling close to $250,000 to engage in the work of advocating for participation in the census. The campaign will supplement the work of the Census Bureau itself, whose capable staff is working hard to engage community-based organizations in hard-to-count neighborhoods as formal census partners. Especially in the current environment, only credible leaders with already established relationships of trust will be able to persuade many immigrants that participating in the census is worthwhile.

Some San Diego County residents may feel unsettled by our region’s changing demographics. But I like to think of the census as truth-telling time. In the coming weeks and months we are being invited to step up to the mirror and consider who we really are as a community – who, in fact, we have always been.

Perhaps someday future generations will look back on 2010 as the year we finally embraced San Diego County’s true identity as a border metropolis with a vast, diverse and vibrant population of immigrants and refugees.

Fanestil is executive director of the Foundation for Change in San Diego.