Courtesy Mazeda A. Uddin/SAFEST

Census outreach workers in Queens. (Credit: Courtesy Mazeda A. Uddin/SAFEST)

Mazeda A. Uddin, who is Bangladeshi, came to the U.S. in 1985, where she constantly found herself acting as a translator for other newly-arrived immigrants from her home country. 

“Since I came here in 1985, many new immigrants came and because of that language barrier, I had to give them hospitality,” Uddin says of how she became an advocate for her native tongue. “I found out that I need my language to be established everywhere, and that’s why I work to give extra time to the community and the people in my language.”

In 2010, she testified for Bengali to be included on official government documents, like school emergency contact “blue cards,” election ballots and other forms. Now, as director of the South Asian Fund For Education, Scholarship, and Training (SAFEST), a community group based in Jamaica, she’s been successful in establishing and advocating for Bengali to be included on the 2020 Census form, and is working to spread awareness about the importance of full Census participation and its benefits for the Bangladeshi community.

In 2010, only 62 percent of New York City residents self-responded to the Census, well below the nationwide participation rate, and several neighborhoods in Queens saw even lower response numbers, data shows. In the decade since, many local organizations have received funding to perform outreach work to ensure equal political participation, resources, and funding for Queens. They want to ensure everyone is counted once and every voice is represented, since Census data is used to determine how government funding will be distributed to organizations, projects, and services that  benefit local communities.

One of the biggest challenges to Census outreach efforts has been reaching immigrant populations, workers say — particularly in Queens, where nearly half the population is foreign-born. 

“One of the most anticipated populations to be undercounted in the 2020 census is the immigrant community, and that’s partly because of the discourse that has been going around for the past year and a half for the proposed citizenship question on the Census form,” says Melva Miller, who leads Census 2020 efforts as the Executive Vice President at the Association for a Better New York (ABNY). 

She’s referring to earlier efforts by the Trump administration to add a question to the Census about a participant’s citizenship, which advocates say would discourage undocumented residents from participating in the count. The administration’s efforts were blocked by the Supreme Court this past summer.

Immigrant populations have always been difficult to count because of uncertainty on the part of some applicants in where their information will go. Census outreach workers are looking to reassure people that the information they include on their Census forms is protected, and confidential under the law.

“People are afraid because they think they will be deported and arrested,” Uddin says.

Certain housing situations also make the Census count more difficult, experts say.

“People living in basements aren’t giving proper addresses,” Uddin says, adding that they also anticipate challenges posed by the number of families living in illegally divided apartments, which can result in households not receiving or filling out their Census forms.

“Gentrification is causing landlords to divide the apartments and rent those apartments to different families,” says Antonio Alarcon, the Census coordinator at Make the Road NY. “One of the issues we are planning to see is that instead of getting two codes, they’ll receive one, so one of those families won’t get counted.”

For the first time in 2020, Census participants will also have the option of filling out their questionnaire online — a change that local organizers say may also pose issues, as some residents don’t feel comfortable using electronic forms for security reasons, as well as lack of access to the internet or a working computer.

“Electronic literacy is going to be a challenge,” says Jonah Gensler, associate executive director of community services, who spoke to City Limits with colleague Johan Lopez, Director of Adult and Immigrant Services at Sunnyside Community Services, a community center in Queens. “We’re going to be opening a computer lab, so people can complete the census on their own.”

There are some 200 languages spoken in Queens, and language access is important to getting everyone to participate.

“A lot of people don’t know that the Census forms will come in Spanish or their own language,” Alarcon says. The Census Bureau has language guides, language glossaries, and language identification cards in 59 non-English languages.

Along with these efforts, the city is also working on programs for younger populations to engage them in Census education through the Department of Education. 

“Classes are doing Census projects, re-instituting civics lessons in classes, and incorporating the census in afterschool programs,” Miller says, noting that children in immigrant families sometimes help their non-English speaking parents decipher government forms, making them an integral part of the count. “We want to get to those populations where the younger ones interpret information to their parents.”

Sunnyside Community Services will be partnering with Queens Library to host children-focused events, including a workshop geared toward pre-school kids, Gensler and Lopez say.

“We collected over 1,000 pledge cards that commit to filling out the census next year,” Alarcon says. “We are going to start going to people’s doors and doing a lot of community events in schools around the neighborhood.”

Former Queens Borough President Melinda Katz provided funding to some local organizations for Census outreach, and Sunnyside Community Services recently received a grant from the city for similar work. 

But there have been issues with funding for some organizations to maximize their Census campaigns, and New York State was criticized for being slow to get moving on allocating state funding for outreach.

“Because of the lack of funding from the Census Bureau and the state, we didn’t start on time,” Alarcon says. “However, we’re doing as much as we can to reach as many communities.”