LANGLEY PARK, Maryland—Two men smoked cigarettes and talked outside an apartment building in Langley Park, an area where almost everyone is from Central America. Three women wearing CASA de Maryland gear approached them, but the men did not appear interested in speaking. One didn’t speak at all, and the other gave one-word answers and looked around as they spoke, not giving them his complete attention.
Those women, led by María Gutierrez, CASA’s field director for three states, were canvassing the neighborhood on a recent Saturday to convince residents to fill out the 2020 census.
Gutierrez, speaking in Spanish, asked one of the men his name and whether he knew what the census was. With her red shirt, she identified herself as a member of CASA, the prominent immigrant advocacy organization, which enjoys the trust of Maryland’s immigrant community. (CASA’s headquarters, in an old mansion, is visible from this apartment building.)
She told him why the census—the survey of every resident of the United States, conducted every decade—is important: An accurate count will bring more political power, money and resources here, meaning better roads, schools and services. If this area is undercounted, that money will go elsewhere.
Furthermore, she said, the census gives the community a voice.
“It’s an obligation to know about the census,” Gutierrez, who is from Puerto Rico, told the man. “It’s important to be counted so we can be respected.”
After testing various messaging strategies over the summer, CASA organizers have begun their census education campaign in Maryland’s immigrant communities.
CASA’s efforts are part of a wider effort in Maryland, where the state government is spending $5 million to encourage “hard-to-reach” communities to participate in the survey.
The Trump Administration sought to include a question about citizenship on the census, but the Supreme Court struck down that question in June after months of legal challenges.
Researchers at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center published a study in April that estimated more than 6 million Hispanics would not be counted if the question was included, or more than 12% of the Hispanic population.
An undercount of this population would result in $1,800 per person, per year that the area would not receive from the federal government, according to multiple sources. Furthermore, it could tilt political representation and federal funding toward areas with fewer immigrants.
Even though the 2020 census will not include that question, advocates say, the controversy was enough to scare people.
“People are definitely moved by the resource argument,” said Elizabeth Alex, CASA’s director of organizing. The other most effective message, she said, was “this idea of being heard, the idea of voice and representing my community and not being erased.”
Gutierrez told Capital News Service that many immigrants, regardless of their legal status, are afraid of interacting with the government, or assume they’re not supposed to fill out the census. She said President Donald Trump’s strict immigration policies have created an unprecedented atmosphere of anxiety and fear in these communities.
“Your census forms aren’t shared with immigration, they’re not shared with anybody,” Gutierrez told the man, who asked not to be identified.
As they spoke, the man became more engaged in the conversation. He asked questions, took her brochure, signed up for more information on her tablet, and told her he would fill out the census.
It’s important to tell people how they can benefit from participating, said Julius Valentine Maina, who works in Baltimore for a regional office of the Census Bureau.
“We know the threats, but you can also pivot it into an interesting argument,” he said. “The more accurately you fill it out, the better services you’re gonna get.”
Eric Seymour, a client services manager at the Esperanza Center in Baltimore, said many immigrants refuse to report crimes to the police, even when they’ve been a victim.
“Almost any time a person puts their name on a piece of paper, they’re concerned about who’s gonna get their hands on it,” he said. “Guarantees from the government only go so far with certain people.”
This will be the first time the census will be conducted mostly online, which will make it much more convenient for many people. But organizations such as CASA will have to work to educate those with limited digital literacy.
About a quarter of the $5 million the state is spending on the effort will go to organizations and government agencies in Baltimore, where there is a higher concentration of hard-to-count communities, according to David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning. These efforts will primarily target people with low incomes, among them the elderly, families with children younger than 5, immigrants, returning citizens, young black men and homeless people. CASA de Maryland received just under $450,000.
Catalina Rodriguez Lima, the director of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, is coordinating the city’s efforts to reach immigrants and those with limited English proficiency. Before the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the citizenship question, Rodriguez Lima told Capital News Service the question would make their work much harder.
“We cannot combat people’s justifiable fears,” Rodriguez Lima said.
She hopes to assuage them with accurate information. She intends to highlight confidentiality laws, and emphasized Census employees who share data could face fines and/or jail time.
Rodriguez Lima said she’s leaning on her “tentacles in the community” — trusted advocacy groups, ethnic media, churches, etc. — because government representatives don’t have the same credibility.
“The most trusted sources are those nonprofits that are on the ground on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
According to Alex, this is the first many immigrants are hearing about the census. She doesn’t want them to be taken by surprise when the survey comes in the mail.
“We don’t want the whole first round of those to just get recycled,” she said.
After the conversation outside the apartment building, Gutierrez walked inside and knocked on every door, leaving brochures at the homes where no one answered.
One man cracked his door open, and Gutierrez convinced him to participate, too.