Huffpost Politics

Spanish Speakers Targeted in Census Plan

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — When Teresa Ocampo opens her census questionnaire, she won't have to worry about navigating another document in English.

The 40-year old housewife who only speaks basic English will be able to fill hers out in Spanish – which is exactly what U.S. officials were banking on when they decided to mail out millions of bilingual questionnaires next year.

For the first time, the decennial census will be distributed in the two languages to 13.5 million households in predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. Latino advocates hope the forms will lead to a more accurate count by winning over the trust of immigrants who are often wary of government and may be even more fearful after the recent surge in immigration raids and deportations.

"If the government is reaching out to you in a language you understand, it helps build trust," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "I think the community has become really sensitive to political developments, and the census is the next step in this movement that we're seeing of civic engagement in the Latino community."

Traditionally, experts say, the Census Bureau has undercounted minority and immigrant communities, who are harder to reach because of language barriers and distrust of government.

Latino advocates hope the bilingual forms will help show their strength in numbers to underscore their growing political influence and garner more in federal funds that are determined by population.

Census officials say they designed the bilingual forms after extensive research, using the Canadian census questionnaire as an example. Over a six-year testing period, officials said the forms drew a better response in Spanish-speaking areas.

The bilingual forms will be mailed out to neighborhoods where at least a fifth of households report speaking primarily Spanish and little English, said Adrienne Oneto, assistant division chief for content and outreach at the Census Bureau in Washington. The cost of preparing and mailing the bilingual questionnaires is about $26 million, which is more than it would have cost to send only English forms.

More than a quarter of the forms will be distributed in California from Fresno to the Mexican border, with Los Angeles County topping the list. The Miami and Houston areas will also receive sizable numbers of the questionnaires.

Automatic mailing of the bilingual forms debuts in 2010. In addition to Spanish, census forms will be made available in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian upon request. That's similar to the 2000 census, when participants could request questionnaires in several languages.

But none of those other languages compares to the proliferation of Spanish. Roughly 34 million people reported speaking Spanish at home in the United States in 2007, more than all the other languages combined except English. Eighty percent of the U.S. population reported speaking only English at home.

The question is whether the bilingual forms will help overcome immigrant fears of federal authorities after seeing friends and family swept up in immigration raids over the last few years. While census data is confidential, many immigrants are wary of any interaction with the government.

"It is a difficult time for immigrants and I could see where there might be concern where being counted might lead to future negative consequences," said Clara E. Rodriguez, professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York.

There are also concerns that the recession has dried up funding used to encourage people to fill out their census forms.

California, for example, pumped $24.7 million in 2000 into efforts to boost the state's count but has only $2 million budgeted for the upcoming year, said Ditas Katague, the state's 2010 census director.

The Census Bureau has worked with Spanish-language TV giant Telemundo to help get the word out. The network's telenovela "Mas Sabe el Diablo" (The Devil Knows Best) will feature a character who applies to be a census worker.

Adding to the challenge of getting more people to participate is a boycott of the census called by Latino Christian leaders. They want illegal immigrants to abstain from filling out the forms to pressure communities that depend on their numbers to support immigration reform.

Census officials say they don't expect a backlash from English speakers because those likely to receive bilingual forms are used to hearing the two languages side by side.

Rob Toonkel, a spokesman for the pro-English advocacy group U.S. English, said he supports census outreach in a myriad of languages but worries that sending bilingual questionnaires only in Spanish might rub some immigrants the wrong way.

"When you start saying, well, this is our preferred immigrant group – whatever group that may be – it sends a very dangerous message," Toonkel said. "It would be the same thing if they started sending (it) to New Hampshire in French or Detroit in Arabic."

Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said the forms should be sent only in English to encourage people to learn the language.

"Taxpayers should not have to carry the additional expense of providing bilingual questionnaires," Kasper said.

But many say the bilingual forms make practical sense – especially since youngsters may speak English even if their parents prefer Spanish.

In Ocampo's neighborhood in central Long Beach, Mexican immigrants live in a dense stretch of bungalows and two-story apartment buildings alongside African-Americans, Asians and whites. Children playing in the street call out to each other in English, then respond to their parents in flawless Spanish.

That's how Ocampo, who is originally from Mexico, said she would have filled out the English census questionnaire if she had to.

"For me, it's much better in Spanish because I don't know English, not enough to fill out a long form," said Ocampo, whose teenage children are bilingual. "If they send it in English or Spanish, either way I'll do it, because my kids speak English."

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