March 28, 2010 | NYDaily News | Original Article

Volunteers urge wary immigrants to be counted in Census; 18% of Brooklyn forms have returned

The big count is on!

As the Census Bureau starts tallying in earnest this week, local organizers are fighting to make sure a greater percentage of New Yorkers are counted this time around.

Nowhere is this tougher than in the city's "hard to count" neighborhoods, where community groups have found it tricky to convince undocumented immigrants it's safe to send in the form.

"There's a lot of work to be done. It's hard to reach everyone," said Valeria Treves, executive director of the Jackson Heights nonprofit New Immigrant Community Empowerment.

An accurate tally - so vital for federal funding - is not easy. The city's return rate was a measly 55% in 2000.

Even if immigrants are convinced to fill out the forms, many say, they are confused or angry about questions on race. Caribbean and Iranian Americans have even launched campaigns urging people to write in their heritage.

"If we don't get counted, schools and all the help from the government won't come," said Jaime Ochoa, 53, an Ecuadoran immigrant, as he puzzled over his census form Saturday.

He didn't get a form at his Richmond Hill, Queens, home, so he got help at a "Queens Be Counted" event that Treves' group co-sponsored at a Jackson Heights charter school.

Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Nepali and Urdu interpreters also were there, but - even with a star appearance by Dora the Explorer - there seemed to be more helpers than people in need of help.

Treves said that even though this is the first census with forms in Spanish and English, it still takes a one-on-one connection to get some immigrants to participate.

Along with a fear of giving the federal government any information, many undocumented immigrants share illegal sublets that receive too few forms.

Treves' group has been sending outreach workers to meetings, churches and places where day laborers gather .

But despite unprecedented mobilization efforts, forms still have been too slow in coming back, said Fatima Shama of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs.

According to Saturday's census figures, only about 18% of people in Brooklyn - compared with 26% in Manhattan, 20% in both the Bronx and Queens, and 28% on Staten Island - have sent in their forms.

"The number is horribly low," Shama said, especially compared with the national rate of 34%.

Since the city receives an average of $3,000 per person from the census, according to the Brookings Institute, "we can't lose this opportunity to count," Shama said.