LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
One year from now, the U.S. government will be asking some personal questions for the 2020 census. And for the first time, you'll be able to officially submit responses in Arabic. It's one of seven new language options for the national headcount. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on what this change means for speakers of one of the country's fastest growing languages.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Once a decade, the Census Bureau has to meet a constitutional mandate - count every person living in the U.S. These days, that includes over a million people who speak Arabic at home.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).
WANG: That was from a TV ad in Arabic for the last census in 2010. Back then, forms for their headcount were available in English, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and Spanish. Next year, the Census Bureau is more than doubling the languages for census forms to include Arabic, plus...
JENNIFER KIM: ...Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese and Japanese for our questionnaires.
WANG: Jennifer Kim oversees the Census Bureau's team responsible for translating census forms. They focused on languages spoken by at least 60,000 households with limited English skills.
KIM: This is a huge leap forward from what we did in 2010, expanding the number of languages for the Internet and for telephone.
WANG: In 2020, paper forms will be available in English and in Spanish. But the Census Bureau is preparing to collect responses in the additional languages online and through a 1-800 number.
You're trying to avoid the need of having door-knockers going to try to collect responses from non-English-speaking households.
KIM: Yes, as well as making it easy for our respondents to understand the questionnaire and respond on their own.
RAWAA NANCY ALBILAL: This is a huge step in the right direction.
WANG: Rawaa Nancy Albilal is the president and CEO of the Arab-American Family Support Center based in Brooklyn, N.Y. The organization offers English classes, as well as health services and legal advice to immigrant families, many of whom came from the Middle East. Albilal says allowing them to respond to the 2020 census in Arabic online and by phone will help make sure they're included in census numbers that guide how federal funding is distributed for schools and other public services. But Albilal says she's still worried about an undercount.
ALBILAL: We're trying to level the playing field for our community members to be counted. And having it online is going to create a barrier.
WANG: Albilal says she's concerned many of the Arabic speakers her organization works with don't have reliable Internet access. There are also worries about a question the Trump administration wants to include on the census. Is this person a citizen of the United States? Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing an individual's census responses with other government agencies, including immigration authorities and other law enforcement, until 72 years after the information is collected. But Albilal says many Arabic-speaking families are still afraid that responses to a citizenship question could be used against them.
ALBILAL: This is no surprise, of course. The families we serve are already dealing with deportation and family separations daily. And it's impacting their daily lives.
WANG: Rowya Alzandani restarted her life in York City a few years ago after moving from Yemen.
This will be your first census.
ROWYA ALZANDANI: Yes. Yeah.
WANG: First time.
Alzandani started attending English classes a few months ago at the Arab-American Family Support Center. She says having an Arabic option for the 2020 census makes her feel more comfortable about participating in the headcount.
ALZANDANI: (Through interpreter) I'd like any form from the government to be in Arabic. If it's in Arabic, we'll understand it correctly. And we'll answer it correctly.
WANG: Taking part in the census, she adds, could help the lives of her four children.
ALZANDANI: (Through interpreter) If we don't respond to the census, we won't have an accurate count of how many Arabs are living here.
WANG: Alzandani says answering the questions on the 2020 Census will be easy, unless it does end up including a citizenship question. That, she says, would make her think twice about answering. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
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