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Census looks to immigrants for help in getting an accurate count; COVID-19 scuttles some early efforts

Some early field work, such as outreach to the homeless, has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the bulk of the census’ door-knocking campaign is now expected to begin in late May rather than in late April.

census rally
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan led a census rally in the Capitol Rotunda on April 1, 2019.
Earlier this month, Minnesotans began receiving information about the 2020 Census in the mail – forms asking them to register the number of people living in their households with the federal government.

For most people, responding to the census is simply one more interaction with the government, akin to applying for a driver’s license. For some of the state’s newer immigrants and refugees, however, the process can be intimidating and confusing – and, consequently, often left undone.

Andrew Virden
Andrew Virden
One obstacle to their participation is language. While paper forms are printed in English and Spanish and online formats are available in another 11 languages, many of the languages native to some of Minnesota’s newest immigrant groups – such as Somalis and the Karen (an ethnic group from Myanmar) – are not represented, said Andrew Virden, the director of census operations and engagement for the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

Moreover, some newcomers – especially those who once lived under authoritarian rule – also lack a basic trust in government, Virden said. And still others are unsure of how census information can be used. As Virden put it: “Someone might think, ‘I’m worried about my landlord. He might find out I’ve got over-occupancy for my two-bedroom. So maybe I’ll put down five (people) and leave off grandma and grandpa.’”

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Whatever the reasons, Minnesota has reached out to immigrants and refugees for help in getting an accurate census count.

COVID-19 complicates things

One early call went to Francisco Segovia, whose Minneapolis-based organization, Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action, was hired to help census-takers reach Latino families.

COPAL, as the agency is known, had planned to distribute census information to Minneapolis teachers who, in turn, could give to Latino children to bring home to their parents. That plan had to be shelved after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools, however, and Segovia had to cancel eight meetings slated to be held in Minneapolis schools.

“The bulk of our work was going to be in a six-week window, trying to do as much as we could in schools,” he said. “That was the original plan, anyway. Now, it has shifted to calling homes and figuring out the use of social media tools and other avenues.”

Francisco Segovia
Francisco Segovia
Last year, COPAL workers stopped by various community events and collected contact information for about 1,600 Latino households. They will now reach out to those families, encouraging them to respond to the census survey and offering them help in navigating the online system. “We Latinos need to be visible,” said Segovia, an immigrant from El Salvador, “and this visibility can be obtained by being counted in the census.”

Some early field work, such as outreach to the homeless, has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Virden said, while the bulk of the census’ door-knocking campaign – designed to reach people who fail to respond to mailings – is now expected to begin in late May rather than in late April.

An accurate count has several consequences for Minnesota, including the possible protection of all eight of its congressional seats, which are allotted based on population.

For immigrant and refugee groups, Virden said, an inaccurate count could lead to many drawbacks, such as a lower amount of public money for translators, fewer classes for English Language Learners and a less-robust job-training sector. “You end up having less good data for government and less good data for those nonprofits who serve these (immigrant and refugee) groups,” he said.

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Still looking for help

State census officials hope to have about 7,500 so-called “enumerators” on board to door-knock and are still accepting applications for these paid jobs here. Help is especially needed in some rural areas, Virden said. The Census Bureau  changed its rules last year so that non-citizens, such as Green Card holders, can be hired.

“We recognize that the federal government is not necessarily the best messenger, that the state of Minnesota is not necessarily the best messenger,” Virden said. “This works best when we have Somalis talking to Somalis, Karen talking to Karen, Laotians talking to Laotians.”

The state is also marshaling social media in its outreach efforts – something that was planned long before the COVID-19 pandemic but that could prove to be helpful in filling in the gaps left by “social distancing.” For instance, it has created animated videos about the census – presented in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali – that can be shared on social media platforms.

As of Monday afternoon, about one-fourth of Minnesota households had responded to the survey, according to census maps.