Census Bureau in PR Blitz to Reach NY Immigrants

The federal government is gearing up for the 2010 Census, and here in New York that means reaching deep into communities that tend to be undercounted. For city officials, an accurate count can mean a difference of billions of dollars in annual federal funds. But as WNYC's Arun Venugopal reports, convincing some immigrants to trust the government is easier said than done.

REPORTER: The Census Bureau is on a PR blitz with New York's ethnic press. On Tuesday, the bureau gathered a room full of reporters and editors from ethnic media outlets, and told them respondents have nothing to fear by filling out a census form. Allison Cenac is a senior officer in the New York regional census office.

ALLISON CENAC: We need the help of all our media in New York City to spread the word that the census is safe and everyone should participate, and that no one will be deported or lose their homes or get arrested or anything negative is going to happen to them.

REPORTER: The 2010 Census count starts next April. At that point tens of thousands of census takers will spread across the city, knocking on doors and trying to get every household to answer the census forms they've failed to mail in. Stacey Cumberbatch is a local official who's working with the Census Bureau to improve the city's low response rate.

CUMBERBATCH: In 2000, the city of New York had a 55-percent mail-in response rate to the census. So that means 55 percent of the population who received the form filled it out and mailed it back. Almost half didn't fill it out and mail it back.

REPORTER: According to the Brookings Institution, New York City received nearly $23 billion in federal funds in 2007, based solely on the last census. If the city can ensure that nearly everyone is counted -- including about half a million undocumented immigrants -- it can increase the amount it receives from Washington, for things like Medicaid, Section 8 and transportation projects.

But as census officials themselves admit, that won't be easy. Traditionally, there's been a high degree of distrust and the fear that speaking with a census taker could lead to deportation. Officials worry that's only been compounded by 9/11, the Patriot Act and the FBI sweeps in certain communities.

Mohammad Farooqi of the Pakistan Post says that even a nine-year gap between 9/11 and next year's census won't erase some people's suspicions.

FAROOQI: The Muslim community -- they are scared, they have a fear, and they have an isolated feeling, especially Pakistanis.

REPORTER: That sentiment hangs over the event and prompts a sort of weary acknowledgment from Lester Farthing, the head of the regional census office.

FARTHING: It's very difficult. We realize our greatest challenge with the census here, especially with the immigrant community is going to be trying to work against the fears that everyone has from what happened on 9/11.

REPORTER: The census is also trying to win over African American men, who historically have the highest rates of undercount. Mary Alice Miller is with Our Time Press.

MILLER: The black men in African American communities, there's a large portion of them who are like the disappeared -- who don't have a legal address, live with women. They're there, but they're not there. They're like ghosts.

REPORTER: The census office plans to keep going back to the city's ethnic communities to build up trust -- not just through the media, but by directly talking to community groups, places of worship and businesses. Nationally, the census bureau is planning to spend around $200 million in advertising -- much of that in the ethnic press. Even bigger than the ad spending is the lure of lots of jobs for census takers: last time, there were more than 35,000 of them in New York, alone. Recruitment starts this fall.

For WNYC, I'm Arun Venugopal.