In California, foreign-born individuals make up nearly 40 percent of essential workers, constituting large swaths of the workforce in sanitation and farming, areas which continue to carry out critical work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As farm workers continue harvesting in the fields with the added risk of California’s unrelenting wildfire season, the important role immigrants have in our lives and acute risk they experience, especially now, becomes undeniable.
Yet, most undocumented immigrants and their family members are not afforded the same federal and state benefits as U.S. born citizens. As non-voters, the political system provides them insufficient access to processes that would allow them to advance their own political agendas. As organizing continues around providing benefits for undocumented immigrants and mixed-citizenship households, one key question continues to arise: how many immigrants are here?
The Census Bureau attempts to answer this question, in an aggregated way, once every 10 years. The collection traditionally consumes a full 10 months. This year the obstacle of a viral pandemic and families displaced by wildfires impeded many Census outreach efforts here in northern California. As of August, national data on Census self-reporting rates showed areas well under 10 points of the average self reporting for the same time period in 2010. This underreporting is showing in some of the country’s congressional districts with high Latino representation in states including California, Georgia, New Mexico, New York, and Texas.
As a result, many Census advocates began calling for an extension to the timeline for collection efforts in order to reach some of these targeted “hard to count” groups, which include mostly immigrants, young children, and unhoused individuals or those in non-traditional forms of housing. Trump met these calls with a push towards shortening Census collection in what Latino organizers describe as “reek[ing] of political opportunism.” In an interview with Vox, the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) extended on this comment saying, “It’s an attempt at political beheading of the Latino vote.”
But Trump’s targeting of immigrants, particularly Latinos, extends well beyond voting immigrants. He exhibited this disdain through his earlier attempt to ask a citizenship question on the Census, which after a long battle, he lost. But he has persisted in his efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census. One month ago, the White House released a presidential memorandum calling for the exclusion of immigrants from the 2020 Census. In less than two weeks, a panel of judges reached a unanimous decision that the President lacked the authority to remove the data of undocumented individuals from the census.
In an interview with El Tecolote, Sarah Souza, Aide in Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s office and President of the Latino Democratic Club, explained how it’s not just voters that make the Republican party nervous. As a Dreamer, Souza may not be able to vote in national elections yet, but she devotes both her personal and professional life to making political change that supports immigrant communities.
“The Census makes the Republican Party nervous because they know it’s an opportunity for immigrants to say we belong here, to claim ourselves as authors of a book we wrote,” Souza said. “And when we get the representation we need through redistricting, we will make sure our voices are heard and our needs are finally met with respect.”
In early August, the Census Bureau confirmed their collection would end by Sep. 30, leaving just a few weeks for organizers to pivot efforts towards last-minute outreach for hard to reach communities. In a discussion with Sonny Lê, a San Francisco local and Vietnamese immigrant who works for the Census, he mentioned that the city is also suffering from underreporting. The percentage of self response in San Francisco is 66 percent of those present in 2010. As Lê explained, these undercounts are only estimates based on data available in 2010. So even in areas where the Census says it has achieved a “complete” data set, they do not mean everyone has been counted.
Considering the mass displacement many immigrant communities faced in the last 10 years as the tech industry continued to grow, the undercount is in reality much worse. “When we Latinos and Asians are displaced, we disappear into the mix and unsafe housing,” Lê said. “We cannot move to Nebraska because we don’t know anyone out there. We need our clinica, we need our church, we need our grocery stores, so we cannot move to the suburbs, so we end up in unsafe housing.”
The areas Lê named as being particularly hard to count included streets like South Van Ness and Mission where multiple families may share one level and assume someone has already filled out the census information for the household.
“My best advice is that if you are unsure, fill it out again,” Lê said. “There is no penalty for providing too much information. The Census has ways to correct for overreporting but there is no way to know you exist without it.”
Echoing Souza, Lê explained that as an immigrant, prior to gaining his U.S. citizenship, filling out the census “is about ourselves, it means being counted, being validated. The Census is a family portrait; if you’re not in the picture you don’t exist. It’s about drawing districts, about drawing boundaries, but it’s also about you. For me now, as a new citizen, it is a way of proving that I have lived here for two census cycles.”
Lê has adopted the phrase of the Latino Community Foundation: “To resist, we must exist.”
Here in California, the Census presents a special opportunity for drawing fair legislative lines. Unlike many states, California has a fully independent body that decides how its congressional and state district lines are shaped. The Citizens Redistricting Commission has already been selected for the 2020-2030 cycle. Of the 14 members, no one is from San Francisco. While four commissioners come from the Bay Area, the Commission relies heavily on Census information and community town halls for information. Given the strains the pandemic poses on receiving community perspectives, there is no way to guarantee that the Commission can know who exists unless they take 10 minutes to fill out the Census.