By Rachel Valdespino
This year, the 23rd decennial U.S. census will be conducted, and local organizations have been making an effort to ensure that their communities are counted.
Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island and SEPA Mujer — Long Island organizations that focus on the education, legal rights and support of the local Latinx communities — have recently joined forces to launch the South Fork Census 2020 Campaign.
“With something as huge as the census, having as many hands on deck is key,” said OLA of Eastern Long Island Associate Director Sandra Dunn. “We had the opportunity to join forces and collaborate when it made sense.”
OLA and SEPA Mujer felt it was important to create complete count committees, a team of leaders within each community to conduct outreach and spread awareness regarding the census, covering Southampton and East Hampton towns separately.
The two groups recently held their first Southampton committee meeting on Thursday, February 27, and will be holding the first East Hampton meeting on Monday, March 9, at East Hampton Town Hall.
“It’s so very important for everyone to participate,” Ms. Dunn said. “Those numbers determine the amount of federal money that comes to our communities. The census estimates $675 billion is distributed throughout the country. In the 2010 census, only 63 percent of New Yorkers were counted — meaning millions [of dollars] didn’t come to the state.”
Ms. Dunn said that it’s important for everyone to be counted, regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status or age. She explained that the Census Bureau considers children under the age of 5, the immigrant community, households where English is not the main language spoken, all ethnic minorities, and people over the age of 65 “hard to count,” but it’s important for all to participate to get a complete number of people in the state at a given time.
There are three different ways to participate in the census: via phone, online or by mail, all of which are available in Spanish as well as English. Ms. Dunn said OLA will have a few group sessions for people where one-on-one assistance will be provided to fill out the questionnaire. She noted that for the first time, race and ethnicity are two separate questions.
Created by Thomas Jefferson in 1790, the census aims to count all those residing in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the island areas.
The U.S. Constitution mandates a census once every 10 years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Census Act authorized the establishment of a centralized Census Office in 1840, and in 1902, the Census Office became a permanent organization within the Department of Interior. It was later renamed the Bureau of the Census and moved to the new Department of Commerce and Labor.
The Census Bureau is forbidden from delivering materials to post office boxes, which are frequently in use on the East End. The bureau can either deliver the questionnaires to physical mailboxes or to the front door of a home. Ms. Dunn said people will start to receive materials within the next two weeks.
If someone has not participated in the census after receiving the materials, reminders will be sent out in April. Only if someone has not participated in the census by May will someone from the Census Bureau arrive at their door.
“In this day and age, when ICE is knocking on doors, it creates a climate of fear. Because of this, people are even more hesitant to open the door,” Ms. Dunn said. “But all census workers have to take an oath for life that they will not share any information collected with any individual or any other government department.”
According to the Census Bureau, the agency must keep the information confidential and utilize the responses only to produce statistics.
“We cannot publicly release your responses in any way that could identify you,” the bureau’s website reads. “We will never share your information with immigration enforcement agencies such as ICE, law enforcement agencies such as the FBI or police, or allow it to be used to determine your eligibility for government benefits.”
Consequences for sharing information collected from the census could result in a fine of $250,000 or five years in prison.
“All the information is used for good,” Ms. Dunn said. “This is good for your family, for your children. If you have a child now that’s 1, 2 or 3 years old, the next census isn’t happening until they’re 12 or 13.”
Alma Tovar, the outreach coordinator at OLA, has been working on outreach via social media. She said OLA has been working on sharing the correct information so the East End community can be properly informed about what the census is and why it’s important.
“We’ve been doing workshops at libraries, museums and churches and posting videos on social media to help educate people,” she said.
Ms. Tovar has also been posting small amounts of census related information on OLA’s Facebook and Instagram stories, making it easier for people to digest.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said it’s critical for everyone to participate in the census. “Federal resources are determined based on population,” he said.
“Even how many congressional representatives we have is based on population. If we’re under-counted, we’re not going to be able to get the financial resources we need to be able to take care of the people who are here. So it’s critical that everyone gets counted, otherwise we’re going to get short-changed.”
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming agreed that a lot of funds are dependent upon everyone’s participation. “I encourage all residents to participate in the census,” she said. “It’s an important tool that helps our district get proper funding for programs and helps our state get adequate representation at every level of government.”
The other half of the South Fork Census 2020 Campaign, SEPA Mujer, is also advocating for all to be counted this year.
“We count, and we should be counted,” SEPA Mujer Executive Director Martha Maffei said in a press release. “Everything that it is important to us, our families and our communities is affected by the census, so we should do everything that we can to be part of this important process as residents of the South Fork.”