April 11, 2010 | The Star Press | Original Article

Census Bureau spends big to court Hispanics

A second generation Mexican immigrant, Mario Rosales intends to complete the 2010 Census questionnaire -- grudgingly.


"They already know everything about us," said the 28-year-old South Bend man, referring to the federal government.

Jaundiced though it may be, Rosales' attitude represents a step forward in terms of the way some Hispanics view the census -- no longer with suspicion but with acceptance and even indifference.


Despite that, the Census Bureau plans to spend $25.5 million this year -- nearly one-fifth of its total advertising budget -- persuading Hispanics to participate in the decennial population count.


Locally, that effort has manifested itself in a number of ways, including:


--Spanish-language bus ads.


--Spanish-language radio and newspaper ads.


--Spanish-language brochures, posters and other handouts.


The goal is to increase participation among local Hispanics through education and outreach, thus ensuring the city receives its fair share of federal funds.


In 2000, only between 50 percent and 60 percent of households in the city's Hispanic neighborhoods participated in the census, compared to about 69 percent citywide.


For statistical purposes, participation means a household returned its census questionnaire.


The reasons Hispanics tend to participate at a lower rate than the general population are many, Rebecca Ruvalcaba said, but fear and distrust play a major role.


"I think it is a combination of things," said Ruvalcaba, executive director of La Casa De Amistad, a Hispanic community center in South Bend, " ... (but) also anxiety or fear or whatever you want to call it, of everything that is governmental in nature."


Since March 19, La Casa De Amistad has doubled as a Questionnaire Assistance Center for the census, and Hispanics who visit the center, Ruvalcaba said, invariably ask whether the Census Bureau plans to share their information with immigration officials.


According to Allert Brown-Gort, assistant director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, "The main challenge in highly immigrant communities is how to let people know their information is confidential."

One way is to point to federal law, which strictly prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing sensitive information with other government agencies.


Another is to engage Hispanic residents on a personal level.


To that end, city planner Chris Dressel said, the Census Bureau has appealed to community and faith-based organizations, including La Casa De Amistad, "to reach out and make contact with those people who do not normally participate" in the census.


For its part, La Casa De Amistad has been promoting the census since last year, Ruvalcaba said, including during Fiesta Michiana, which took place all the way back in August.


Whether these efforts produce results remains to be seen. As of Friday afternoon, only between 30 percent and 40 percent of households in the city's Hispanic neighborhoods had responded to the census questionnaire, according to the 2010 Census Web site.


Even so, both Ruvalcaba and Brown-Gort said they expect the census will show the local Hispanic population -- 9,110 residents as of last count -- has grown considerably during the past 10 years.


"Compared to 2000," Brown-Gort said, "it will be much higher."