Counting on Communities

Counting on Communities

Immigrant support groups are key players in the quest to reach the undercounted and boost Census response rates.

by scott barker • February 6, 2020
Gina Wilson, secretary of the Knoxville Area Korean American Association; Jula Shiwasopit, Census liaison to the Thai and Laotian communities; and Kumi Alderman, executive director of the Asian Culture Center of Tennessee (left to right) talk about outreach to their communities at the end of a Census workshop on Tuesday.

Immigrants from Thailand have never directly dealt with a census conducted by their homeland’s central government — officials in Bangkok rely on community leaders to provide a count of the county’s roughly 68 million people.

Officials see education and building trust as the vehicles for overcoming resistance to the Census.

Thai immigrants living in Knoxville and Knox County make up just one of more than a dozen groups of foreign-born residents the U.S. Census Bureau and local leaders are aiming to reach so they are counted in this year’s census. 

“In Asia, they don’t do anything like this,” observed Jula Shiwasopit, who is serving as a liaison to the Thai and Laotian communities in Knoxville for Census2020. 

“They just don’t know how important it is,” added Kumi Alderman, executive director of the Asian Culture Center of Tennessee. “That makes people suspicious.”

Shiwasopit and Alderman were among 30 or so representatives of various international constituencies who gathered on Tuesday to learn more about how to get people in their communities to respond to the Census. The Local Complete Count Committee, made up of city, county and community representatives, met on Wednesday.

Representation and Funding

Everyone residing in the United States on April 1, regardless of national origin or citizenship status, is required to participate in the decennial head count mandated by the Constitution.

Local officials are ramping up outreach efforts as the Census season approaches. Invitations will be mailed out beginning March 12-20. Most Knox County residents will not receive printed Census forms initially — the Census Bureau is encouraging people to respond online, an option that has never been available before. 

Only residents in Census tracts that have been slow to respond in the past — mostly neighborhoods surrounding downtown, including Mechanicsville, West View, Lonsdale, Lincoln Park, Belle Morris, portions of South Knoxville and most of East Knoxville — will initially receive paper forms.

Census results determine the number of representatives each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and are used to calculate billions of dollars in federal funding to state and local governments for housing, infrastructure, schools, medical facilities and more. 

In the 2010 Census, Knox County had a response rate of 82.4 percent, according to Tim Kuhn of the Tennessee State Data Center, which is housed at the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business. 

Estimates vary, but each person who skips the Census costs local governments between $1,000 and $2,000 a year. “If one person is missed, it can cost our community $10,000 to $15,000 over 10 years,” Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said.

The most undercounted portions of the population are young children, renters, low-income households, and racial and ethnic minorities.

Counting the Concerned

Many who are resistant to responding are immigrants. About 6 percent of Knoxvillians are foreign-born, according to Kuhn. Overall, Knox County has a lower percentage of the population that is non-white than the state. “It is a diversifying community, but not as diverse as the state or nation as a whole,” Kuhn said.

During the past decade, Tennessee has seen a shift in the points of origin of its foreign-born population. From 2000-2009, immigrants from Latin America made up 55.6 of the entering foreign-born population. In the years since 2o10, immigrants from Asia have come to Tennessee at a faster rate — 36.9 percent of the state’s total, compared to 37.1 percent from Latin America.

Refugees, by definition, have fled violent, war-torn countries and often are distrustful of the government. Many undocumented immigrants are fearful of any interaction with the federal government. A controversial question about citizenship pushed by the Trump administration is not included on this year’s nine-question Census form, but skepticism remains.

Luis Urrea of Centro Hispano, East Tennessee’s primary Latino community advocacy group, and Caesar Bautista Sanchez of Nashville-based Tennessee Immigrants and Refugees Rights Coalition, said their organizations have hit on a new approach to convincing immigrants to respond to the Census — fill out the form to avoid direct contact with government officials. 

Urrea said he and other Centro Hispano staff tell immigrants, “No stranger is going to come to your house if you complete this as soon as possible.”

Though many Americans associate undocumented residents with the Latino community who enter the country illegally, most people in the country without proper authorization have overstayed work, education or tourism visas, and come from all corners of the world. 

According to a report issued last year by the Center for Migration Studies of New York, visa overstays accounted for 62 percent of the nation’s undocumented immigrant population from 2016-2017. Gina Wilson, secretary of the Knoxville Area Korean American Association, said there are Asian immigrants who fall into that category. “Non-documented immigrants are afraid,” she said.

A number of Americans by birth don’t trust Washington, D.C., either, for various reasons. Some non-respondents in unincorporated Knox County likely to fall into that category, according to Jane Jolley, who is the Census liaison for Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. “I think that’s probably a lot of it,” she said.

Reaching Everyone

Education and assurances of confidentiality are key to establishing trust and credibility, many involved in the Census contend. Only statistics from the Census are made public. Detailed personal information remains confidential under federal law for 72 years and cannot be shared with other government agencies. Violators can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined up to $250,000.

Centro Hispano has been at the forefront of recruiting and outreach. Claudia Caballero, the organization’s executive director, said Centro Hispano has emphasized reaching the 3,000 to 4,000 Latino residents who worship at Sacred Heart Cathedral each weekend, as well as distributing refrigerator magnets with Census information on them, information cards and posters for places Latinos frequent.

Schools are another place to reach families from marginalized communities. Jennifer Searle, senior program manager in Kincannon’s administration, said she’s working with Knox County Schools and the Great Schools Partnership to make all principals, teachers and community schools representatives aware of the need. 

Students living in and around the University of Tennessee make up another targeted bloc. “Students count here, and we need them,” Searle said. “In 2010, the Census tract that includes the university was the most undercounted in the state.”

The local awareness campaign for the general public will include targeted radio ads, a social media campaign, billboards and mailers, according to Eric Vreeland, the city’s deputy communications director.

Kincannon said the primary goal for the Complete Count Committee is to motivate people to respond to the Census. “It’s going to be different in different communities,” she said. “There are a lot of different ways, and we need to work on all of them.”

Familiar Faces

Kincannon has a unique perspective on the Census. Her father, Louis Kincannon, worked for the Census Bureau most of his career and was the agency’s director from 2002 through 2007. 

“I’ve been immersed in Census stuff my entire life,” Kincannon said. “I grew up wearing Census t-shirts and had Census posters in my room.”

Kincannon said a big part of her father’s legacy is that he insisted that the bureau recruit census takers from the populations they count, resulting in hiring more minorities and members of immigrant communities. At his funeral, she said, co-workers told her about his leadership. “A common refrain was he was committed to a diverse group of people to conduct the Census,” Kincannon said.

The Census Bureau still follows Louis Kincannon’s lead, and the Complete Count Committee has made it a priority locally. One result is that the Census Bureau has exceeded its goal for applications from Spanish-speaking people.

A little more than half the 3,112 households in Knox County where English is spoken only on a limited basis are Latino. Eight in 10 are inside the Knoxville city limits. Census forms are available in 12 languages other than English, with instructions on how to complete the forms in English in 59 others.

Just last month, the Census Bureau raised the pay for census takers in Knox County to $19.50 an hour, plus 58 cents a mile for travel. Applications skyrocketed, from about half the goal of 4,400 applicants to 80 percent, said Kim Smith, who is a Census Bureau coordinator for Tennessee.

“A lot of that is because we’ve had a lot of partners help with recruiting,” she said “Raising the pay has also helped with the surge.”

By April 1, Census Day, all American households should have received an invitation to participate. Census takers will make home visits in April and May to those who have not responded. 

The Census Bureau’s Smith said, “We’ve got to get it right so our community can benefit over the next 10 years.”