Local News | Push is on to ease census fears among ‘hard-to-count’ groups | Seattle Times Newspaper

Coverage on March 6 Census Community Forum! Thanks to the Make our Community Count Campaign for making this happen!


Push is on to ease census fears among ‘hard-to-count’ groups

On Saturday, advocates for “hard-to-count” groups met to make sure they’re represented when U.S. census-survey forms are mailed this month to all households.

By Erik Lacitis

Seattle Times staff reporter

If you drive down through Seattle’s South End, the changing face of the city is evident.

Thai, Vietnamese, Hispanic, East African and other ethnic businesses dot the streets.

On Saturday, advocates for “hard-to-count” groups met to make sure they’re represented when U.S. census-survey forms are mailed this month to all households.

For the advocates and the people they represent, each person counted means $1,400 a year in needed health care, housing assistance and other federal and state public-assistance programs.

U.S. census workers at the meeting at the New Holly Community Center kept stressing that the survey is simple — 10 questions that take at most 10 minutes to answer — and that it is confidential.

Fehi Tuivai, of Tongan origin and a specialist with the Census Bureau, said that ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, had sent the bureau an e-mail saying that although ICE “would not halt activities” during the census period, “they’re not going to increase them, either.”

Various speakers at the meeting talked about the fear among their constituents that information from the census form might be used to deport them as illegal immigrants. Increased ICE busts would fuel that fear.

Census representatives said they had to take a lifetime oath that they’d keep responses confidential and not share information with any other government entity. They said they could face up to a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison for breaking that confidentiality.

Mohamed Sheikh Hassan, who came to the U.S. in 1994 as a refugee from Somalia and now is director of the Afrique Service Center on Rainier Avenue, talked about earning the trust of people who came from dictatorships in Africa, when it comes to dealing with a government agency.

“Over there, the government dictates, and never asks the people,” he said. “You mess with the government, you’re never seen again.”

He also said that a number of the new arrivals can’t read or write English. Hassan said they know by the envelope what a utility bill looks like, or something from a health clinic. Everything else they lump as junk mail and throw away.

“We have to make sure to tell them, ‘Please, make sure not to throw it away,’ ” he said, referring to the U.S. census envelope.

For some, like Al Garman, who grew up in Iran and owns a Bellevue custom-cabinetry and furniture business, the census is about getting political clout. He’s with the National Iranian American Council, which represents the group in Washington, D.C.

“Right now, we’re identified as ‘white,’ ” said Garman. “On Question No. 9 (about a person’s race) we’re telling our people to write down ‘Iranian’ or ‘Iranian American.’ We need to be counted.”

The Census Bureau has made projections that by 2050, and maybe as early as 2040, what the bureau labels as “non-Hispanic whites” will be in the minority in America.

Hassan made it a point to say that immigrants shouldn’t be singled out for accepting public assistance. He understands that in these hot-button-issue times, there is a visceral reaction from some on this issue.

“Everybody gets these services, no matter what color they are. Caucasian Americans get the same subsidies for school lunches, clinics, transportation,” said Hassan.

The goal of these new immigrants, however, is not welfare but jobs.

“Go to the airport, 90 percent of employees there are East Africans. Go to a chicken-processing plant or the fish industry. All East Africans,” said Hassan.

Hassan said that it’s no longer the Seattle with its Scandinavian heritage.

He said, “We all know white Americans won’t be in the majority. That’s fact. It’s a world community.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com


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