Walking into the Kent Hindu Temple in late February during a festival to honor the deity Shiva, Tulika Dugar took time to look around and join in. She stood in line to make an offering by pouring a mixture of milk, oil and other substances over a small statue. She partook of a buffet featuring spicy chickpeas, the creamy spinach dish known as saag and other Indian dishes.

“OK,” she said, getting up from the floor where dozens sat eating. “Now we can get to work.”

With three other women from the India Association of Western Washington, Dugar handed out flyers urging participation in the 2020 census. Alternating between English and Hindi, she told people the census happens once every 10 years, it will only take 10 minutes to fill out, and each family member should be counted.

Before one woman walked away, she called out a key message: “You don’t have to be a citizen.” To a man unsure he should bother, she stressed: “You count! You matter!”

The U.S. Census Bureau — and a wide array of local officials and organizations wanting to maximize federal funding and political representation derived from the census — has been relying on people like Dugar, known and trusted in their communities, to spread the word and allay fears among those considered “hard to count.”

Immigrants have historically fallen in that category. Many fear they will be even less likely to participate this year amid attempts by President Donald Trump to restrict both legal and illegal immigration, his harsh rhetoric and the administration’s attempt to put a citizenship question on the census, ultimately  blocked by the Supreme Court.

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And now a new obstacle has arisen: the novel coronavirus. For months, millions of dollars and enormous effort have gone into countering resistance to the census. The arguments have tapped into surprisingly deep feelings about what it means to be recognized and heard.

That’s still the case, but plans have substantially shifted. “At the eleventh hour, we’ve had to rethink our entire strategy that’s been in the works for the better part of the last year,” said Debbie Lacy, executive director of the Eastside Refugee and Immigrant Coalition. “We’re having to be creative.”

It’s no longer an option to go to festivals like the one Dugar visited. Most were canceled even before Gov. Jay Inslee’s order last week restricting gatherings of more than 250 people. As postcards began going out last week  inviting people to fill out questionnaires online, by mail or by phone, those coordinating outreach are looking at following up by calling people or connecting digitally.

Tulika Dugar, civic engagement coordinator for India Association of Western Washington (IAWW), writes down places for volunteers to go for the 2020 census at a February meeting in Redmond. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Tulika Dugar, civic engagement coordinator for India Association of Western Washington (IAWW), writes down places for volunteers to go for the 2020 census at a February meeting in Redmond. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

At the time of the last census, Dugar said, she had recently arrived in the U.S. from India as the spouse of a H-1B visa holder. “I had no privileges, no rights, nothing. It almost felt like I didn’t exist.” She assumes her husband filled out the census form, but she wasn’t involved.

Now a citizen, and India Association’s civic engagement coordinator, the 42-year-old Bellevue resident describes the census as empowering  — a way to claim your place in American society. She said people may say to themselves: “I don’t earn. I am not a citizen. I’m not a decision maker in my family. We are a patriarchal society.”

“The census is the one place it doesn’t matter. You still belong.”

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Mary Njoroge, a Kenyan immigrant attending a recent Census Bureau summit for faith and community leaders in Tukwila, also talked about belonging and doing things “the way any American would.”

“If people are being counted,” she said, “we need to be counted.”

Plus, she said her community was eager for services funded according to census data. There is a vast array: hospitals, roads, school lunches, the Head Start preschool program, food assistance, care for seniors and people living with disabilities, and more. The census also determines how many congressional seats each state has and the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts.

2020 census

Timeline

Everyone living in the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories is required to be counted by the 2020 census.

March 12: Households begin receiving 2020 census mail about how to respond by phone, email or online.

March 30-April 1: Census Bureau counts people living in shelters, tent encampments and other outdoor places.

April: Census takers visit large group-living populations, like college campuses and nursing homes.

May through July: Census-takers visit households that haven’t responded.

December: Census Bureau delivers counts to the president and Congress.

March 31, 2021: By this date, Census Bureau sends redistricting counts to states, which redraw legislative districts based on population changes.

More information: 2020census.gov

To a remarkable degree, most people living in this country eventually cooperate. “We’ve been doing this since 1790,” said Toby Nelson, a regional Census spokesman. “Various issues come up every 10 years,” he added, when asked about the political climate this time around. “And every 10 years, the census comes out on time and accurate.”

Methodical post-census surveys, in which sample blocks are selected for recounting with in-person visits, show undercounting among various groups, including Hispanics, Blacks, and American Indians and Alaskan Natives living on reservations, but those rates are low — an estimated 1.5 %, 2 % and 4.9 % respectively in 2010. (Unlike the annual, more-detailed American Community survey, the census doesn’t ask if someone was born in another country, so there is no specific undercount figure for immigrants.)

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Yet, even differences as small as a couple of hundred or thousand people, especially in mid-size cities like Kennewick or Yakima,  can decide whether an area gets a federal grant, said Kamau Chege, manager of the Washington Census Alliance, representing 55 organizations working in communities of color around the state.

Even before the coronavirus hit the state, Chege said he believed undercount figures would be higher in 2020 than 10 years ago. “A lot of the damage has already been done.”

A December Urban Institute survey of 7,700 adults found that most still believed the census will have a citizenship question and roughly 40% of immigrant families — even those made up entirely of citizens — said they were extremely or very concerned about how answers will be used.

For the undocumented, a prime concern is that data will be shared with immigration enforcement agencies, though the Census Bureau is prohibited by law from sharing personal information with anyone or any agency, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“They think it’s a set up,”  said Dickson Njeri, another Kenyan immigrant attending the Tukwila summit for faith and community leaders.

Others are not necessarily fearful but believe the census counts only citizens. That misconception is prevalent in the Indian community, said India Association Executive Director Lalita Uppala, and could prevent wide swaths from participating: lawful permanent residents, H-1B visa holders and their spouses (H-4 visa holders), and seniors living many months of the year in the U.S. with adult children.

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Nelson, the Census spokesman, said the bureau is going to great lengths to reach every segment of society. It has budgeted $50 million for advertising aimed at Latinos.

“El censo cuenta a todos sin importar su lugar de origen o estatus migratorio,” reads one ad in the Everett-based, Spanish-language newspaper La Raza del Noroeste. (The census counts everyone without taking into account the place of origin or migratory status.) “Además, es eguro y por ley tu información personal está protegida.” (Also, it is safe and by law your personal information is protected.)

Alvaro Guillen, La Raza’s publisher for 14 years and now working for the Census on outreach, said that before taking the job last summer he read up on  Title 13, a section of the U.S. Code that strictly protects personal information. During training, Guillen took a lifetime oath of confidentiality, as outlined in the code. Violation carries a potential prison sentence of up to five years and a $250,000 fine.

Guillen, who also sits on the board of the Snohomish County Latino Coalition, said the due diligence made him “100%” confident in telling others the census is safe.

A network of local government agencies, nonprofits and philanthropies are also pouring money and energy into reaching hard-to-count populations. The Census Alliance expects its partner organizations to recruit more than 600 “trusted messengers” by April 1, by which date everybody should have received an invitation to participate in the Census. Each trusted messenger, often leaders in churches and community groups, is asked to reach out to 20 households, and the hope is those households will then talk to others about the census.

Chege, of the Census Alliance, said he’s heard from messengers that some people can’t be convinced, as has Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez, who is coordinating Census outreach for El Centro de la Raza.

After running into someone they know at the Kent Hindu Temple during a festival in February honoring the deity Shiva, Rangu Mandyam, left, and Tulika Dugar of the India Association of Western Washington are invited to speak to the crowd about the 2020 census. (Nina Shapiro/ The Seattle Times)
After running into someone they know at the Kent Hindu Temple during a festival in February honoring the deity Shiva, Rangu Mandyam, left, and Tulika Dugar of the India Association of Western Washington are invited to speak to the crowd about the 2020 census. (Nina Shapiro/ The Seattle Times)

Before the coronavirus crisis, Lacy, of Eastside Refugee and Immigrant Coalition, was cautiously optimistic. Certainly, there was a lot of work to do in her area. Mapping tools, based on analysis of 2010 return rates and changes in demographics since then, show downtown Bellevue and Redmond among hard-to-count areas. Both tech hubs have had big increases in foreign-born residents, as of 2018 representing about 40% of  the cities’ populations.

But Lacy said months of efforts were paying off. People were asking fewer  questions about security and more about how to fill the form out. They want to get their questionnaires in, with help from groups like hers, rather than have a Census worker show up at the door, she noted. So-called Census “enumerators” are scheduled to start visiting households that haven’t responded in May.

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“It’s scary anytime someone knocks on doors,” Lacy said, and people don’t want to have to figure out whether the person is really with the Census or a scammer.

Will enumerators still come, given the risk of contracting coronavirus through in-person contact?  Nelson, the Census spokesman, said the bureau has not changed  plans at this point, but is encouraging people to fill out forms on their own so staffers don’t have to come around. Door-to-door work isn’t to start, in most parts of the country,  until May.

What was supposed to happen sooner were a lot of activities helping people fill out questionnaires.

Last month, in the India Association’s Redmond office, executive director Uppala, a former toxicologist, mapped out an exhaustive strategy with about a dozen volunteers. On a white board was a list of volunteers Uppala identified as young mothers, who had agreed to host census parties in their homes. Many of the association’s volunteers, some 55 in all, are spouses of H-1B visa holders without work permits themselves, and they have thrown themselves into the work.

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“Where does our community go on the weekends?” Uppala asked as they discussed siting tables where volunteers equipped with hot spots could help fill out questionnaires there and then. “Bellevue Square — if you haven’t seen it on a Saturday, you should check it out. You see constant brown.”

Other places they discussed hitting with tables, flyers or requests to pass on information: Crossroads Mall, Costco and apartment buildings populated largely by Indians. “Property managers are key,” Uppala said, suggesting they bring gifts of Indian scarves.

Holi, the festival of colors, was coming up soon. Out came reindeer noses with Census logos, used during the winter holidays but, it was decided, repurposable.

By the time the festival began March 9, everything had changed. “‘We’ve already switched to a completely different plan, Uppala said a few days before. The parties, the tables at malls, the reindeer-nose distribution — all called off.

Instead, the India Association planned to create tutorials and videos to share online. WhatsApp is used particularly heavily in the Indian community, Uppala said. The association also intended to ask grocery stores serving the community to play its videos on their monitors. And it was setting up a schedule for volunteers to make calls urging people to fill out forms.

“I’m not giving up,” Uppala said.

But Lacy, of  Eastside Refugee and Immigrant Coalition, said the limited ability to actually see people, to meet them where they are, is a big drawback. “It really ties our hands in a lot of ways.”