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The Race To Be Counted: Why Some Mass. Advocates Fear A Woefully Inaccurate 2020 Census05:46
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Yessica Menendez holds a 2020 Census pamphlet given to her by Centro Presente Director Patricia Montes. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Yessica Menendez holds a 2020 Census pamphlet given to her by Centro Presente Director Patricia Montes. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

En español traducido por El Planeta Media.

It's a hot and humid summer day in East Boston. Patricia Montes steps out of her car wearing a blue mask over her mouth and nose and looks down at a clipboard holding several pages of names and addresses, all of East Boston residents who've been supported in some way by Centro Presente, the nonprofit organization she heads up.

"It's very hard to keep track because [there are] too many people and some of them are moving to other cities because they don't have enough money to pay the rent," Montes says.

She reaches for two blue grocery bags among the pile of food donations she's handing out, dropping in an information card about the census.

Her first delivery is to Angelica, who's been out of work for months after recovering from COVID-19. Angelica, who's in the country without documentation, comes to the door wearing a protective mask to collect the delivery. We've agreed to use only her first name because she says she'd be in danger if she were deported back to El Salvador.

President Trump wants to exclude undocumented immigrants from being included in the population totals counted by the census and used to apportion Congressional seats. The presidential memo is being challenged in federal courts across the country, including in Boston, as the Constitution states "whole number of persons in each state" are to be used for the tabulation. In the meantime, people like Angelica are being included in census counting.

Centro Presente Director Patricia Montes explains to Angelica the importance of filling out the 2020 census as she delivers food to families in need in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Centro Presente Director Patricia Montes explains to Angelica the importance of filling out the 2020 census as she delivers food to families in need in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After sorting through the groceries, Montes encourages Angelica to fill out the census, explaining that the information helps allocate federal resources. Angelica still has doubts but, she says in Spanish, she feels better after talking with Montes.

"Because I'm here undocumented and I don't know if this could cause problems in the future. You never know. Sometimes you have lots of fears and questions, but I think she is giving me good advice and we're going to do it."

Undercounted, Underserved

These types of interactions are happening in cities and towns across the state with nonprofits leading the effort and focusing on historically undercounted communities, like those with large numbers of immigrants and people of color.

Many of these same communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Montes says it's hard to prioritize filling out the census when you're focused on feeding your family.

"They have the right to be counted, they have economic and political rights," Montes says. "So, that's why we're trying very hard to give food, be friendly with them and also emphasize the importance of participating in the census."

Banners reading “Aquí estamos y contamos” or “We are here and we count” hang on the lamp posts in Bellingham Square encouraging all residents of Chelsea to fill out the 2020 Census. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Banners reading “Aquí estamos y contamos” or “We are here and we count” hang on the lamp posts in Bellingham Square encouraging all residents of Chelsea to fill out the 2020 Census. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This is all happening within a dwindling time frame.

Once the pandemic hit, the Census Bureau extended its counting deadline to the end of October. But a few weeks ago, the collection deadline was moved up to Sept. 30, and that has grassroots organizations scrambling.

Betty Francisco is co-founder of Amplify Latinx, a nonprofit focused on building Latinx economic and political power in the state. She says the shortened time frame will almost certainly result in severe undercounting.

"That loss of a month I think has really dire consequences for how many more people can get counted," Francisco says. "This is now when census workers are out knocking on doors but in some communities we're still at 50% lack of participation, so there's just not enough time."

The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office said in an email that funding is being targeted to help census efforts in hard-to-count communities in and around Boston, and extending to cities like Lawrence and Holyoke, where the response rate is still hovering around 50%. In 2010, Boston's response rate was 64%. Right now, it's 54%.

"[S]ome of the things that make Boston and Greater Boston such a great place to live also make Boston incredibly hard to count."

Beth Huang, director of Massachusetts Voter Table

Beth Huang is the director of Massachusetts Voter Table, which is coordinating the coalition working to increase census responses across the state. She says the coalition is doubling down on phone and text banking in some of the cities with the lowest response rates.

"Boston is one of the hardest to count cities in the entire country because we have so many renters, we have so many immigrants, we have so many young people," Huang says. "And so some of the things that make Boston and Greater Boston such a great place to live also make Boston incredibly hard to count."

With a tablet, Chelsea Collaborative volunteer Yudalys Escobar helps a Chelsea resident fill out the 2020 census during a food distribution event on 6th Street. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
With a tablet, Chelsea Collaborative volunteer Yudalys Escobar helps a Chelsea resident fill out the 2020 census during a food distribution event on 6th Street. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

'We're Fighting Against The Deadline'

In nearby Chelsea, volunteers with Chelsea Collaborative carry digital tablets and approach residents showing up at a mobile food pantry, asking if they've filled out the census or if they need more information. They help residents complete the census online while they wait to collect free boxes of food.

Viakie Gonzalez, who helps coordinate the census efforts for the collaborative, estimates the group has completed thousands of census forms online. But, she says, it's still difficult to convince some people they have the right to be counted, and that their information won't be shared with federal immigration officials.

"Our residents are becoming more and more scared because [of] basically everything that's on TV, saying they don't want them to count, hurry up let's get this over with," Gonzalez says. "Well that's why we're walking around with our tablets and we're making it happen as soon as we can and we're fighting against the deadline."

There's a little more than a month to complete the tally, and another 10 years before the next chance to be counted.

This segment aired on August 18, 2020.

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Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is an immigration reporter at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.

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