- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The government is fumbling some of its efforts to assure immigrants that census data won’t be used against them, including gaps in outreach and foreign language guides that refer to the decennial count as an investigation, according to a critical new survey.

With the launch of the head count just weeks away, the U.S. Census Bureau’s outreach has been falling short in at least a dozen major cities, such as Chicago, Dallas, New York, Seattle and San Jose, Calif., according to a report released Monday by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). Many of these cities are in states on the cusp of gaining or losing U.S. House seats and face a redrawing of legislative boundaries that may tilt the balance of political power.

The legal group is partly critical of the Obama administration, citing its refusal to give fuller assurances that census data would be kept confidential and to suspend large-scale immigration raids during the count — as was done in the 2000 census. AALDEF said it was not ruling out legal action to get stronger guarantees.

The census officially began last month in parts of rural Alaska. Most of the nation will receive the forms by mail the week of March 15.

“We have heard a lot of speeches by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and the census director saying the census is confidential. But speeches and Web postings do not have the force of law,” said Glenn Magpantay, an AALDEF program director, in a telephone interview.

“We are running the risk of a real undercount,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “The next few weeks will be critical.”

The Census Bureau is printing instruction guides and sample forms in dozens of different languages for use in community help centers because one in five residents speaks a language other than English at home. But there have been errors due to poor translations, including material for Vietnamese speakers that describe the census as a “government investigation.”

The agency was able to correct its Web material two weeks ago after groups pointed out the problem, but it’s too late to fix the paper forms, according to the report. There are more than 1.1 million Vietnamese in the country, with major concentrations in California and Texas.

Other gaps included a lack of specialists for the Bangladeshi community in Detroit; the nation’s third-largest Korean-American population in Chicago; and the South Asian and Cambodian communities in Philadelphia and Rhode Island. In Virginia, when groups cited a need for census specialists for local Korean and Vietnamese communities, the agency responded by hiring someone who spoke Chinese.

The Census Bureau has emphasized it is devoting a large amount of its $133 million ad campaign to racial and ethnic audiences. It also partnered with more than 150,000 business and community groups, hoping to build trust in its message that filling out the 10-question census form is safe and easy to complete.

The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, has made clear it will not ask the Homeland Security Department to hold off on large-scale raids, as was done in 2000. That has drawn consternation from immigrant groups, particularly as it has become unlikely that Congress will pass an immigration reform bill this year.

In 2000, the Census Bureau noted for the first time an overcount of 1.3 million people, due mostly to duplicate counts of more affluent whites with multiple residences. Statisticians estimate that about 4.5 million people were ultimately missed, primarily lower-income minorities.

*AP writer Chris Williams in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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