Who Will Be Counted?

February 11, 2019

Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau sets out to count every single person living in the United States. What does this mean for the communities we serve, and why is there so much fuss more than a year ahead of Census Day in 2020?

First, the census matters: population is key to power and resources in America. In keeping with the Constitution, the census determines the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. This then impacts the number of votes a state has in the Electoral College — the system through which Americans choose their president. The larger the population, the more influence the state has over legislation and leadership. The federal government uses census data to allocate over $675 billion per year in funds for schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other programs. New York City uses the census for planning and emergency preparedness. Businesses refer to the census when choosing where to build factories, homes, and commercial developments. Community boards use the census to identify underserved populations, highlight local needs, and advocate for improved services. The census is how we determine fair share. It affects AAFSC’s clients by impacting the resources available for local development and assistance.

Second, the census is supposed to count EVERYONE — regardless of citizenship. Today, with the country deeply divided over immigration, New York State and the New York Immigrant Coalition (NYIC) have both filed lawsuits challenging a proposed census question on citizenship status, arguing that its inclusion will reduce participation by immigrant populations. The case is under appeal and will likely be settled by the Supreme Court. According to a study the U.S. Census Bureau itself conducted concerning barriers, attitudes, and motivators for participation, in every single focus group (rural, Chinese, Middle East / North African, young and mobile, etc.) people believed the purpose of the citizenship question was “to find/deport undocumented immigrants.” Participants in only five out of the 11 focus groups believed the citizenship question was meant to “gather statistics.” MENA community members also worried that their census data would be used for surveillance and control. The study shows that all sorts of groups distrust the government and are suspicious of how their data will be used — creating a huge obstacle to participation. This is no surprise: immigrants face hostility and discrimination every day, and even legal residents are wary of attracting government scrutiny. For states like California and New York with large immigrant populations, undercounting these groups in the census could dramatically cut state representation and resources for the next decade.

Third, it’s worth thinking about HOW people are counted. Despite years of advocacy, a category for Middle East / North African (MENA) will not be available under racial/ethnic identity on the 2020 form. Instead, people from these groups will be instructed to select “White” — a term that few use to self-identify, and which many feel inaccurately portrays their lived experience. It is hard to motivate participation when groups feel invisible: although this won’t be fixed next year, we hope MENA will be a category in future.

Looking to 2020, AAFSC is deeply committed to ensuring everyone is counted, particularly targeted Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities. At the same time, we are demanding that immigrants’ serious concerns about data safety and security be addressed. Our multilingual team stands ready to educate community members about the census through outreach events, digital media campaigns, and our Adult Education and Civics classes. And as a trusted community partner, we’ll be listening.  We will amplify the voices of the people we serve at city, state, and national levels, in coalition with NYIC and others.  At AAFSC, we strive for a just society where all immigrants — including Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian populations — can fully partake as Americans. We want everyone to feel safe enough to stand up and be counted.  Stay tuned for ways you can join us in our commitment to ensuring access, equity, and participation.