Getting An Accurate Census Count Is Vital. First, Muslim Americans Need To Trust It’s Safe.

Like many Muslim Americans, Hidaya Assaf, a 27-year-old mother of two, was initially skeptical of the census. She’s Palestinian American, and many of her friends on Facebook were discussing whether it was worth filling out the 2020 survey. She could understand their reasons for concern. 

“We think, OK, why do they want to know so much about us? Do they just want to spy on us or do they just want to see if we’re terrorists?” Assaf told HuffPost.

Assaf did some digging online, though, and learned more about the census survey ― how it’s conducted to get an accurate count of the population, why it’s important for allocating government resources and how vital it is for determining congressional maps so communities can be properly represented. She felt reassured. So she went ahead and filled out the survey.  

Families across the country started receiving invitations in March to respond to the census either by phone or (for the first time ever) online and will continue to do so as the country marks Census Day on April 1.

Many people are making the same calculations Assaf did. Populations that have historically been profiled or targeted by the government are understandably wary of turning over information to the government. That could be doubly true this year, given President Donald Trump’s failed push to get a citizenship question added to the census and his administration’s targeting of immigrant and Muslim communities.

Plus, there’s a new challenge: The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic delayed efforts to reach out to marginalized communities, which could make it even tougher to get an accurate count of minority populations. But given the importance of the census, experts are urging all people to fill out their surveys and hoping that if they learn more, they’ll follow through. 

By law, a respondent’s personal information from the census cannot be used against them by any government agency or in court. But advocates are still up against fear and concern.  

“There is a lot of mythology and confusion around what the census actually collects data-wise, and what the government does with that data,” said Basem Hassan, the strategy director focused on engaging people of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) heritage in the 2020 census campaign.

“So, combine all of these together in a pot and mix it around and that was our challenge. To educate the community and then to motivate them to participate.”

Distrust Of The Government

Since the creation of the census in 1970, minority populations have often been undercounted, which means the places where they live wind up with fewer resources. This year, Muslims from Middle Eastern, South Asian and Black communities were already hesitant in participating in the census because of fear their information would be used to target them for deportations, kick them out of their housing or place them on or a special registry, which then-candidate Donald Trump once floated. Some immigrants from countries with authoritarian governments are particularly dubious that the U.S. won’t use their info for ill.

While the U.S. Census Bureau is bound by law to protect private information, it’s not unreasonable that Muslim Americans would be concerned. In 2011, the New York City Police Department used census data to place undercover informants in predominately Muslim communities under a controversial and condemned surveillance program that tracked Muslim worshippers, students and business owners. 

Under the Trump administration, any remaining trust in the government was demolished amid the president’s rhetoric against Muslims and minorities and the institution of the anti-Muslim travel ban. 

28-year-old Haylee Goranson, a Muslim American resident of Sarasota, Florida, said that while the census is for the public good, she fears that it would be too easy for Trump to mishandle it for political purposes. 

“I’m for the census. It’s the political climate that we’re in” that concerns her, Goranson said.

Painting An Accurate Picture

Beyond the question of whether to answer the survey at all, many Muslims and Middle Easterners who are not Muslim may struggle with a specific question: What to list as their race. Approximately 3 million people of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or North African descent live in the United States, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. But for decades, Middle Eastern and North African communities have been defined as “white” in the survey.

That categorization, which has been in place since the census was created, erases Middle Easterners and North Africans and their unique challenges as a minority group, according to critics. It also contributes to the lack of funds allocated to programs and services catering to Middle Eastern and North African groups.  

The Obama administration considered adding a Middle Eastern and North African category in the 2020 census, based on the Census Bureau’s recommendation, but the Trump administration has rejected the idea, claiming more research is needed. 

In 2018, the Arab American Institute initiated a lawsuit against the Office of Management and Budget ― which sets the standards for how the Census Bureau and other federal agencies collect race and ethnicity data ― for failing to disclose records relating to its decision not to include a Middle Eastern and North African category despite the Census Bureau’s recommendations to do so. 

The Arab American Institute also launched a YallaCountMeIn toolkita compilation of census-related resources and frequently asked questions in both Arabic and English to encourage Arab Americans to partake in the census. 

“Adding a MENA category would make the data better and would make Arab – Americans and other Middle Eastern communities feel more included [and] represented on the census,” said Ryan Suto, the policy counsel at AAI. 

But for now, Suto said, “everyone needs to be counted regardless of citizenship status, regardless of age and regardless of whether you trust the current administration or not, because it goes well beyond that and it really impacts how and to what extent the community is represented.” 

Language And Logistical Barriers

The Census Bureau announced plans to reach out to communities, including in languages other than English, to get the most accurate count it can. The agency works with community partners and plans to spend more than $500 million in public education and outreach campaigns to reach “99 percent of all U.S. households,” according to the bureau. It has released ads in 13 languages, including Arabic, Tagalog and Haitian Creole. The questionnaire can also be completed by phone in those same languages. 

But many speakers of South Asian languages might not be reached. In 2010, the Census Bureau advertised in several languages including Hindi/English, Bangla and Urdu, but in 2020, the bureau dropped those options. Despite the fact there are over 5 million South Asians in the U.S., there has never been a translated form in any of the South Asian languages for any census. Asian Americans as a whole are the least likely group to fill out the census. 

The Census Bureau’s efforts alone aren’t enough to make marginalized communities feel comfortable with the survey, said Howard Shih, the director of research and policy at the Asian American Federation, which is the only designated census information center for Asian communities in the Northeast. 

“I feel that the bureau isn’t necessarily the best messenger,” said Shih. “I feel that if the message comes from the people that are involved from that community to other members of that community, that’s the most effective way to get those hard-to-reach communities counted.”

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic makes that tougher ― with so many people confined to their homes, it’s difficult to ensure they can meet someone from their community or who speaks their language to assist with census questions.  

There are other challenges to contend with as outreach efforts go digital, such as people who do not have access to a computer or the internet, or those who struggle to understand the online census form.

Still, with extended deadlines in place, advocates are hoping they are able to rally members of hard-to-count communities despite the onslaught of challenges. An inaccurate count would have profound effects on undercounted populations, including minorities, children and those living in poverty. The data from the 2020 census will determine where and how more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding will be spent.

In Virginia, Assaf realized the importance of the census triumphed her concerns. She checked off “white” on her census form. but wrote in “Palestinian” for herself and “Jordanian” for her husband and two kids. She hopes to have a MENA category in 2030.

Goranson, however, still has the mailer on her to-do list in her Florida home. She knows she’ll do it eventually, but for now, she’ll wait a bit longer, hoping to feel better about her decision to partake sooner rather than later. 

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