The teal yard signs lining the block on Division Street in East Biloxi carried urgent messages.
- “It’s not too late.”
- “No es demasiado tarde.”
- “Get counted today.”
It was Sept. 5, and the deadline for Americans to respond to the 2020 census was 25 days away. Billions of dollars, political representation, and America’s understanding of itself are at stake. One census worker in Biloxi that day called it simply “money and power.”
Inside El Pueblo, a nonprofit that offers legal services, classes and other programs for immigrants on the Coast, a table was set up with flyers and pamphlets about the census, in English and Spanish. There were red census water bottles and black census tote bags. Spanish-speaking census workers and volunteers were on hand to answer questions and guide people through filling out the form.
Mayra Ramshur, victims advocate coordinator at El Pueblo, was hoping for a good turnout. She had invited El Pueblo’s clients and spread the word to local churches. But the last time she held a census outreach event, earlier in the summer, nobody showed up.
“People are afraid,” she said. “They think the immigration authorities will come and arrest them.”
With just weeks to go before the close of the 2020 census, Coast organizations are racing to count as many people as possible. Organizations like El Pueblo, Boat People SOS, Steps Coalition, Back Bay Mission and others are especially focused on Black, Latino and Asian Americans, and low-income residents, who are less likely to be counted nationwide. The reasons are many, ranging from language barriers to mistrust of the government to fear of immigration consequences.
An undercount would mean that fewer resources, from school funding to money for roads, would be headed to the Coast over the next 10 years. According to the state, it will lose out on an average of $50,000 in federal funds over the next decade for each Mississippian who isn’t counted.
In 2010, Mississippi had the highest rate of omissions — people uncounted by the census — of any state in the country, at 8.9 percent, according to one study. That meant more than 250,000 Missisippians weren’t counted. Though much of the numerical difference was made up by the Census Bureau through statistical clean-up after the count, that process is less accurate.
There was some optimism about the census early in the year. By late March, Mississippians’ self-response rate to the census was solidly ahead of the national average, at 18.3% compared to 16.7%.
Steps Coalition, Boat People SOS and Back Bay Mission had secured $150,000 in funding to support local outreach to encourage people to complete the census, part of which they regranted to other organizations on the Coast: Program Believe/New Bethel CDC, Climb CDC, Disability Connection, Moore Community House, Hancock Resource Center and Morning Star Baptist Church.
“We were actually on quite a roll through February, early March,” said Jonathan Green, executive director of Steps Coalition. “We were on pace to beat 2010 and have greater participation, and then COVID happened. Now we’re a little bit concerned that we’re not gonna have the complete count that we were shooting for.”
Today, Mississippi’s overall response rate of 80.7% is tied with Montana near the bottom of the list; only Georgia and Alabama rank lower. The picture is somewhat brighter on the Coast, where Jackson and Harrison County have outpaced the state’s self-response rate and Hancock County lags only slightly. Only Jackson County has exceeded the national rate.
But there’s still more than half a month to go. Here on the Coast, the struggle to count every Mississippian continues.
“I have a hope, the Latino community will be better counted this time,” Ramshur said. “I pray.”
‘So much distrust’
Since the 1970s, advocates and activists from America’s Black, Latino and Asian communities have mobilized to demand a more accessible and accurate census. The Census Bureau has expanded questions about national origin and created materials in additional languages, and spent more money on outreach.
Even so, people of color remain likelier than white Americans to be missed. A 2019 Urban Institute report projected the census could undercount Black and Latino Americans by about 4% each. One Census Bureau survey found that Asian respondents were the least likely of any racial group to say they were “extremely” or “very” likely to fill out the census.
Alice Graham, executive director of Back Bay Mission, said that organizations like the ones conducting census outreach on the Coast have to make sure people understand what the census is used for. Personal information provided to the census bureau won’t be shared with other government agencies, police, or immigration authorities.
“Our biggest challenge is helping people understand that their information will not be compromised,” she said. “There’s so much distrust of government. And they’re concerned that if they have questions or issues in their past that they’ll be found.”
Alyssa Tulabut, senior field manager at the national organization Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), said that language issues and concerns about immigration consequences can become barriers to southeast Asian Americans filling out the census. On the Coast, Vietnamese Americans disproportionately live in what the Census Bureau calls “hard to count” tracts, Tulabut said: nearly 33% compared to about 26% of Mississippians overall.
And an undercount in one census means the government could be less likely to direct appropriate resources to the area for the next census, because it doesn’t really know who lives there.
“In 2010, if southeast Asians weren’t counted, your locality isn’t going to have that data that says, ‘X number of Vietnamese people live here, so let’s invest,’” Tulabut said. “It’s kind of this cycle of, if you’re not counted, you don’t get the accessibility, but you can’t take the census if it’s not accessible.”
‘We exist here’
Daniel Le, the Biloxi branch manager of Boat People SOS, a national nonprofit that serves Vietnamese Americans, said he believes the 2010 census undercounted the Coast’s Vietnamese community by half. The census recorded about 5,000 Vietnamese people across the lower three counties. Le believes the true figure is closer to 10,000.
The census provides the official data Le is supposed to use to describe who his organization serves and what their needs are. When Le applies for funding from national organizations, he has to use the census to explain his community. But the undercount means that the official data can actually hurt his case, he believes.
Funders are looking for “the most bang for their buck,” Le said.
“Some funders gave us feedback for why (our proposal) wasn’t awarded, and … one reason was the number of people we served is much less than other organizations that serve a bigger community,” he said.
This time around, Le got a grant to focus on census outreach. Boat People SOS broke out their database of all the clients they’ve served over the years. They called everyone and asked if they had responded to the census. If the answer was no, they invited the client to come into the office for assistance filling it out. (The 2020 census invitation mailer included an insert with information in 12 different languages, including Vietnamese. The insert explains how people can fill out the census online or over the phone in their own language.)
Boat People SOS also partnered with local Vietnamese churches and Buddhist temples to get the word out about the census. Father John Thang Pham, the pastor of Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Biloxi, said he had helped a few parishioners fill out the census in his office.
“We live in this country,” he said. “We have to have people know we exist here.”
By early 2020, Mississippi had allocated about $400,000 to census outreach efforts. (Alabama, by contrast, appropriated about $1.2 million.) The state contracted with the Biloxi-based marketing firm The Focus Group to lead the project. As of early September, the Focus Group’s contract with the state had ended, so no one at the firm could comment, the company told the Sun Herald.
In mid-March, Mississippi was “absolutely outperforming” its response rate from previous censuses, said John Green, director of the State Data Center and vice chairman of the Mississippi Complete Count Committee. Because Mississippi has a relatively high number of residents in the “hard to count” category, community outreach and local connections were an important part of the strategy to keep that momentum going.
“But of course, the pandemic really disrupted that kind of grassroots getting the message out, making people feel more comfortable having trust in what’s being done,” John Green said.
Now, in the last month of data collection, some in-person events like the ones at El Pueblo are back. The census enumerators, often carrying Census Bureau tote bags, are making their rounds, visiting households that haven’t yet responded.
Graham, of Back Bay Mission, said her organization has been distributing information about the census to laundromats and barber shops. In the last few weeks of the count, they’ve started putting up yard signs in the neighborhood.
“We’re just everyday trying to get out information with the idea that even though they may have gotten the information, repeating it reminds them about it,” Graham said.
Another challenge is the compressed timeline. On Aug. 3, the Trump administration announced it was moving up the deadline for door-knocking and other outreach efforts, from the end of October to the end of September. That meant four fewer weeks to complete the count.
For Mississippi, John Green said, the announcement came just as families were figuring out what to do about the school year and as coronavirus cases continued to surge.
“I think a good way to describe it is pandemonium,” Green said.
Despite the chaos of the 2020 census, Le is feeling good about this year’s count of the Coast’s Vietnamese community.
“With the efforts and outreach that we conducted over the past few months, with the support and assistance from the church and the temple, I would think most of us have responded,” he said. “But in terms of the percentage of people, I can’t really tell until we get the data from the census.”
Fear and misinformation
About half a dozen people stopped by El Pueblo on Sept. 5 to complete the census and ask questions.
One woman, 41-year-old Maria R., said that people had been telling her not to fill out the census because it could jeopardize her status in the United States. She is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras who has lived in Biloxi since 2014. After she did her own research, she concluded it was safe to complete the census. But she still wanted more information to give skeptical friends and neighbors, so she came to El Pueblo to learn.
“I’ll go back to share the knowledge, so they don’t have to fear,” she said, speaking through an interpreter, one of the volunteers who had come to help with the event. “I’ll give them correct information, but they’ll have to make a personal decision.”
Ramshur said many of Mississippi’s immigrants had been scared by what they learned of the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Though the plans were dropped after a defeat at the Supreme Court, the fear remains.
In Mississippi, Ramshur said, undocumented immigrants have been especially eager to avoid contact with the government since the ICE raids at Mississippi poultry plants resulted in the arrests of 680 people.
She had spoken with one young man who is a U.S. citizen but is afraid that if he fills out the census, his parents could be deported.
Any effort to chip away at that fear and misinformation felt like a success.
“Even one or two people you reach, it’s big,” she said.