Census Workers In Queens Find Reluctant Residents

Volunteers have spent weeks trying to convince residents of one New York neighborhood to fill out their Census forms. An accurate count can bring in government services and funding for projects, but many residents in and around Corona, Queens, don't want to be counted.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today is National Census Day, the target date to send off your census form. It's also the culmination of what the bureau says is the largest civic outreach campaign in history. That campaign has targeted hard to reach groups, including undocumented immigrants.

Annie Correal, of the newspapers El Diario/La Prensa, takes us to one part of Queens, New York that had low participation rates in the 2000 Census. She reports on an effort there to make this year's count more accurate.

Her story comes to us from Feet in Two Worlds, a project that brings work by immigrant journalists to Public Radio.

Ms. ANNIE CORREAL (Journalist, El Diario/La Prensa): Its rush hour in Corona, Queens, and hundreds of people stream off the subway. Theyre mostly young Hispanic men. As they step out onto the street, they're handed flyers for a dentists office, a new music venue, and the census.

Unidentified Woman: Trabajos de censo.

Unidentified Man #1: Census jobs.

Ms. CORREAL: The people handing out these flyers are census workers. They're trying to enlist local residents in the massive effort to get more immigrants counted. But just a block away, one of the people theyre trying to reach says he has no interest in participating.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. CORREAL: Hes undocumented so he wont give me his name. But he says he's 25 and from Mexico. From the tarp-covered stall where he sells CDs, he tells me hed rather stay the way he is - hidden.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).

CORREAL: He says he used to have a food cart, until he was arrested and had to sell it to pay the fine. Now, he says, I just want to stay underground.

In fact, the census is safe. It's confidential and it doesn't ask anything about legal status. Still, in every census, immigrants tend to be under-counted, costing cities and towns electoral votes and millions in federal funding.

To change that, the census has partnered with 200,000 organizations nationwide. Most are volunteers working in immigrant and minority communities. They're holding rallies, handing out fliers and sending email blasts.

In Queens, one of these trusted messenger organizations is New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE. Valeria Treves is the director.

Ms. VALERIA TREVES (Director, New Immigrant Community Empowerment): Our community members are themselves going to be the ones walking up to the laborers stop, tabling at the train station, going to the taco trucks, going to all the places where immigrants and undocumented immigrants might congregate and talking to them about the importance of the census.

CORREAL: But the problem is, people don't get their forms at the taco trucks. They get them at home, and Treves says that's where it gets interesting for the census. Undocumented immigrants tend to live in crowded shares with a rotating cast of strangers.

Ms. MARTA MOREDA: (Speaking foreign language).

CORREAL: Marta Moreda(ph) is an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador. She shows me around the cramped apartment where she lives with her family and several strangers. It's so crowded, they keep a bed in the hall. I ask Marta the first question on the census form: how many people will be living here on April 1st?

Ms. MOREDA: (Speaking foreign language).

CORREAL: She says she thinks seven: six adults and her baby. A home like this presents more than one issue. First, who's the head of household, the person who fills out the census form? Marta says she'd play that role. But could she provide information about her housemates? The faces change so often that as she points from door to door, she has trouble remembering each of their names.

Ms. MOREDA: (Speaking foreign language).

CORREAL: Picture tens of thousands of housing units like this and you'll get an idea of why they call this neighborhood hard to count. Still, around the country, elected officials like New York State Senator Jose Peralta are holding out hope that more undocumented immigrants will be counted than 10 years ago.

State Senator JOE PERALTA (Democrat, New York) Because the bottom line is, is if we're not counted, we lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in this neighborhood. And those dollars is necessary so that we can fund more of the schools, we can fund the hospitals, so we can pave our streets, so we can improve our quality of life.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Announcer: (Speaking foreign language).

CORREAL: This TV commercial reminds immigrants that the census can bring money into their community and assures them that their answers are protected by federal law. That message may not have convinced everyone in Queens, but it certainly has reached a lot of people. The census has gotten behind the door, even in the hardest-to-reach homes like Marta's.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Correal in New York.

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