Politics and Government

COVID-19 adds another challenge to MN's Latino census response

Advocacy groups are migrating to digital outreach to help boost participation

A woman leans on a chair as she listens.
Emilia Blanco (left) listens to a presentation about the census on Feb. 26, 2020 at Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio in St. Paul, before the coronavirus prompted the group to pivot to online outreach.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Several barriers get in the way of many Latinos participating in the United States census — fear and mistrust of government, poverty and confusion about how to note racial identity are just a few.

The COVID-19 crisis has added another challenge, now that community groups aren’t able to meet face to face to answer questions about the census.

For weeks, community groups in Minnesota had been reaching out to members of the state’s Latino community to make sure every person is counted in the 2020 census. But they’re now pivoting their efforts to virtual spaces in hopes of ensuring an accurate count of Latino Minnesotans.

There are an estimated 300,000 Hispanics in Minnesota, but that number could be higher if everyone in this hard-to-count population participates in this year’s census.

That’s why Camila Mercado Michelli, a project manager at St. Paul-based Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio, or CLUES, spends her days taking phone calls about the census and helping folks fill out their forms. Once in a while, she goes onto Facebook Live to give a presentation.

Minnesota could lose a seat in the U.S. House if the 2020 census shows its population is not keeping pace with states growing much faster. She tells her virtual audience that’s one reason it’s important to participate.

Census outreach events that were held before the COVID-19 outbreak aimed to help Latinos in Minnesota understand the importance of the count, Mercado Michelli said. She’s switching her efforts to digital outreach and has seen a similar level of engagement as some folks continue to have questions about the forms they’ve received in the mail.

A woman pointes to a question on a screen.
Camila Mercado Michelli explains census questions about race and identity on Feb. 26, 2020, at CLUES in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

“We tell them that it’s part of shaping their future,” Mercado Michelli said. “Their participation ensures benefits for our communities. And in doing that, we are providing a voice, and we're being transparent of who we are, and we’re here — that we exist.”

But some Latinos remain hesitant to participate.

That’s in part because the Trump administration had proposed to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. It's not on the final form, but Hugo Bellido, a pastor at Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, said his congregation is still worried about it.

“They don’t know that there is not that question,” he said.

Immigration lawyer Patricia Perez Jenkins said a lot of community members want to know if their information will be shared with federal immigration officials. She tells them their information is protected, and that there are many people who are here legally who aren’t citizens — like green card holders or people on student visas — and they’re counted the same way.

“Just because you're not a citizen doesn’t mean you don't have status,” she said. “I was letting them know, it’s a very tiny question when you actually think about who's here.”

Buttons with the words "Censo 2020" and "#YaMeContaron!"
Buttons with the words "Censo 2020" and "#YaMeContaron!"
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

But fear of deportation lingers, and people routinely ask how they’d know if the person knocking on their door is a U.S. Census Bureau worker or a Homeland Security officer.

The Census Bureau has adjusted their operation plans this year due to COVID-19. But as of now, it still plans to send out census takers as early as May, and the bureau is promoting the questionnaire through Spanish-language videos, web pages and other materials.

Advocates say people should fill out the census questionnaire online or by mail so that a census taker won’t have to come to their door. They add that people don’t even have to put down a name, and that they can just note race and ethnicity.

But the race question is another that can be complicated for some.

Research shows that many Latinos may not accurately explain their identity on the census. In 2010, most Hispanics identified as either “white” or “some other race,” according to the Census Bureau.

That’s because the standard race question of white, black, American Indian, Asian American and Native Hawaiian, doesn’t necessarily capture Hispanic identity, said Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, a researcher with the Pew Research Center.

“So if you are a Latino from California, you consider yourself to be mestizo, also mixed race, but you are asked about your races in the standard category you might not see yourself there,” she said.

She points to research showing Latinos will not typically correspond to these various identities with race because their backgrounds are so layered, with indigenous, Spanish and other origins.

This year, the Census Bureau hopes to get an accurate count of these racial identities by allowing people to write a description of their origin under the race question.

Mercado Michelli, of CLUES, used herself as an example at a recent presentation. She told community members that as a Puerto Rican, she identifies as Afro-Latina, while her boyfriend, whose family is from Guatemala, would note Mayan.

The U.S. Census Bureau has extended the self-response period to Aug. 14.

An example of a census form written in Spanish on a screen.
A sample census questionnaire written in Spanish is projected on a screen at CLUES in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News