Will distrust of the federal government impact Fort Wayne's 2020 Census count?

At face value, it’s an easy ask.

Take five minutes to fill out a 12-question form, and the results will impact your community’s federal funding for the next 10 years.

Census data is collected once every decade in the U.S., and it is used to determine how much funding goes to cities for everything from education to healthcare, politics, child and family services, food assistance programs, roads, public transportation, and more, explains City of Fort Wayne Community Liaison Palermo Galindo.

Galindo is the head of the Complete Count Committee, or CCC, which convenes community leaders and representatives from human service organizations across Fort Wayne and Allen County to rally residents to participate in the census in any way they can.

Census participation is required by law, and invitations to respond will be delivered between March 12-20, 2020. Once you receive the invitation, you can fill out the form online, by phone, or by mail anytime until April 1.

The Complete Count Committee meets at Citizens Square in downtown Fort Wayne to discuss their 2020 Census strategy.

But while the ask may seem simple, the task of getting all members of a community to participate in a census can be daunting. For decades, city leaders have struggled with education and awareness, particularly when it comes to reaching historically undercounted census populations, including immigrants and refugees, non-English speaking residents, people experiencing homelessness, and children.

For instance, if a child’s parents are divorced, they may spend time in multiple households, making it a question of who should count the child. So the CCC works with representatives across Allen County to provide consistent and accurate information. (Children are to be counted once by the household in which they spend the most time, for instance.)

But along with education and awareness, the 2020 Census presents city and county leaders with an arguably greater task: Distilling fears about handing over private information to the federal government in an era of high distrust among key undercounted groups—namely, both documented and undocumented immigrants and refugees.  

A Latino immigrant-turned-U.S.-citizen himself, Galindo recognizes this challenge, but is optimistic that the city’s multicultural, collaborative approach to convening trusted community leaders in the CCC will be effective.

Ten years ago in 2010, he got his first experience coordinating the CCC, which made a concerted effort to bring diverse leaders together from across the city to reach a wider swath of residents. They achieved a 77 percent turnout rate citywide, as opposed to 70 percent in 2000.

“We’re shooting to exceed 80 percent turnout this year and to get close to 90 percent by the means of utilizing social media, our strong partners in the CCC, and by educating and building awareness,” Galindo says.

Census data is used to determine how much federal funding goes to cities for critical services like education, healthcare, food access, and public transportation.

Even so, other members of the CCC are uncertain that the turnout will be what local leaders are hoping for.

Raquel Aragon Kline, who co-chairs the CCC with Galindo, is also Executive Director of Language Services Network (LSN) in Fort Wayne.

LSN offers professional interpretation and translation programs and services in the region for about 22 languages, focusing on the four most commonly spoken in the Fort Wayne area: Burmese, Spanish, Arabic, and French.

As a Latina of Nicaraguan descent, Kline feels torn between her knowledge of the importance of the census and the fearful comments she hears about it among her Latino community in Fort Wayne.

On one hand, she’s inspired by the way leaders from all parts of town have collaborated around the census and put in hard work to make it as accessible as possible.

For instance, the U.S. Census Bureau provides translated web pages and guides to the census in 59 non-English languages, including American Sign Language, braille and large print. But they have not yet translated the information into the Burmese dialects that some Fort Wayne refugees speak.

Therefore, the CCC has translated census information for Burmese speakers, providing them with forms and even making personal phone calls to homes through East Allen County Schools.

They’re also stationing translators at key areas in the community, like the Allen County Public Library, to help Burmese-speaking residents fill out the census in-person, Kline says.

But despite these efforts, she frequently hears concerns among friends and people LSN serves about whether or not the census will reveal their immigration status or be misused against them.

“A lot of people are very concerned,” Kline says.

Handouts aim to ease residents' concerns about the use of census data.

Unfortunately, these populations are also extremely critical to count in the census because they often rely on public services funded through census data—like schools, public transportation, and language services. Therefore, if they are not accurately counted, organizations, like LSN, may not have the funding they need to accommodate the actual number of residents they serve—and the effects will have a lasting impact for 10 years.

“These are the communities that really, really need to take part in the census,” Kline says.

To help ease fears, she, Galindo, and other members of the CCC are assuring vulnerable populations that the Census Bureau is bound by law to keep personal information private for a period of 75 years. The Census Bureau’s websites says it “cannot release any identifiable information about you, your home, or your business, even to law enforcement agencies. The law ensures that your private data is protected and that your answers cannot be used against you by any government agency or court.”

In short, census data is kept anonymous and used to produce statistics. By law, it cannot be used to target undocumented individuals and families. There will not even be a question of citizenship on the form, Kline points out.

Even so, with the Trump administration’s major policy shifts and crackdowns on immigrant and refugee populations in the U.S., some wonder whether they can trust the federal government to keep its word and to not use their personal information against them.

It’s a fear that Irene Paxia, Executive Director of Amani Family Services in Fort Wayne, knows well.

Paxia was born into dual citizenship of the U.S. and Italy, where her family currently resides just outside of Venice.

Since coming to the States to study abroad in her 20s, she’s married a Fort Wayne native and built her life in northeast Indiana, working for social services organizations that help bridge the gap between immigrant and local cultures.

In 2015, Paxia became Executive Director of Amani, which helps more than 1,500 immigrant and refugee families in Allen County attain critical services, like representation in court cases and counseling. She says the current political climate in the U.S. has made it difficult for her and others at the nonprofit to advise immigrants on what they should and shouldn’t do when it comes to the federal government.

Yes, there are laws involved with legal processes like census taking, but could those laws change or be broken? Could vulnerable populations be taken advantage of when they are offering their information up freely?

These are the questions immigrants are often asking themselves, Paxia explains, and she doesn’t see it as her role to tell them what to do or believe.

Nevertheless, when census representatives reached out to her about hosting an awareness-building event at Amani, she agreed that providing families with Census 2020 information is the right thing to do. Ultimately, they can decide whether or not to participate on their own.

“Immigrants are a very diverse population, so we don’t assume whether they will or will not participate, but some might need help accessing the information, and educating is never wrong,” Paxia says.

In late-January, Amani, the CCC, and other partner organizations hosted a free Multilingual Open House about the 2020 Census at Amani’s new office on the north side of Fort Wayne. The event was highly attended by representatives from the local Burmese, Congolese, and Latino communities, Paxia says, and translators were available for non-English speakers.

“We had a live Facebook video of the event that was watched by several hundred people, too,” she explains. 

While the current nature of U.S. politics may make some weary, she sees hope in the fact that the census is now available online, so immigrants and refugees reluctant to meet with census takers in-person or over the phone can access the information themselves from the privacy of their own homes.

She says Fort Wayne’s immigrant and refugee populations have also become more organized and established in the past 10 years, which could boost census participation, as well.

“In some ways, I have more confidence in the turnout this year than I did 10 years ago because more of our immigrants and refugees are aware that the census is coming,” Paxia says. “Especially the Burmese community. They’ve been here long enough now that there are leaders among them who have participated in the census before, so from that point of view, it is probably easier.”

Even so, counting immigrants and refugees is only part of the challenge for census advocates. Paxia’s husband, Andrew Applegate, works for Brightpointa private, non-profit agency, reaching out to a different type of undercounted census population: People experiencing poverty and homelessness.

Based in Fort Wayne, Brightpoint works with approximately 40,000 individuals across northeast Indiana, promoting economic and community development by providing resources, helping people gain access to opportunities, and teaching them the skills they need to become self-sufficient.

Because census data is collected by household, the question of how cities account for their homeless populations, in particular, is highly relevant.

So far, Brightpoint has participated in CCC meetings and equipped its managers and housing counselors with census outreach materials to share with their clients, but that’s about the extent of the effort, says Vice President of Community Services at Brightpoint Pam Brookshire.

While the organization has made a concerted effort to count people experiencing homelessness as part of HUD’s annual PIT (Point-In-Time) count every January, similar efforts have not yet been taken for collecting census data.

“We’ve been good about getting the materials out, but we haven’t figured out how to target these populations to ensure that they take the census,” Brookshire says.

It’s a challenge that is not unique to Fort Wayne, either. Even PIT counts have received criticism for drastically undercounting the number of residents experiencing homelessness in cities, so getting an accurate count for the census is a difficult task.

From 2000 to 2010, Fort Wayne’s CCC was able to double census participation among undercounted communities by getting information and forms into the hands of trusted community advocates, Galindo says.

With even greater and more diverse participation in the CCC this year, he hopes Fort Wayne can achieve an even more accurate count.

“The census impacts our community for 10 years,” Galindo says. “We have a very diverse Complete Count Committee compared to the 2000 and 2010 eras. It’s growing, and I feel positive we’ll reach and exceed our goal.”

Learn more

The Complete Count Committee (CCC) is always looking for new volunteers to join its efforts in spreading awareness and education about the 2020 Census, Galindo says. Those interested can reach out via the CCC’s Facebook page FW Counts on Me: 2020 Census.

For more information, visit fwcountsonme.com.

The City encourages residents to follow the CCC on Facebook and use the hashtag #fwcountsonme to raise awareness about the 2020 Census, which will officially happen on April 1. Census forms may be filled out by mail, online, or by phone anytime from the arrival of your invitation through April 1.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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