Census deadline looms as South Bay groups race to count residents
San Jose city employees Sinh Tang, Hilda Morales and Diana Garcia canvass a San Jose neighborhood Sept. 2, 2020. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    A federal judge in San Jose over the weekend halted the U.S. Census Bureau’s plans to wind down operations on Sept. 30, but local groups are still scrambling to get the word out about the federal survey and how it can benefit residents.

    “We’re really going where we know that folks need an extra push, an extra invitation to take action,” said Maria Noel Fernandez, deputy executive director of economic policy think tank Working Partnerships USA.

    Working Partnerships is one of several groups targeting three undercounted areas in Santa Clara County: downtown San Jose, East Side San Jose and Gilroy. The San Jose areas roughly correspond with City Council districts 3, 5 and 7, according to Noel Fernandez.

    About 75 percent of county residents have responded to this year’s census survey, according to Nick Kuwada, manager of the county’s census office. This estimate was formed from a count of addresses through the Local Update of Census Addresses, which added about 70,000 new Santa Clara County addresses since the last Census.

    “The hard part is reaching everybody because we have over 1.9 million residents here in Santa Clara County,” Kuwada said.

    U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh on Saturday issued a temporary restraining order to stop the Census Bureau from suspending the count until a court hearing is held on Sept. 17.

    A lawsuit filed by a coalition of cities and civil rights groups argued that ending the count early could lead to an undercount of minority communities and demanded it restore a plan to finish the count in October instead.

    The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors last week approved $1 million in funding in a last-minute effort to reach hard-to-count communities. The county has already spent more than $6 million on the effort.

    Some lawmakers, including Mayor Sam Liccardo, called on Congress to extend the Census deadline to Oct. 31. The law requires the count to be done by Dec. 31, but the U.S. Census Bureau announced in August it would finish field collection data in Sept. 30 to “protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce.”

    Liccardo last week joined four other mayors to warn that stopping the count early “will be detrimental to our efforts to secure an accurate analysis of our nation’s population.”

    “A rushed Census would hurt a diverse range of rural and urban communities, leaving them underrepresented locally and in Congress and cutting their fair share of federal funding for Medicaid, economic development, child care, schools, road and public transit improvements, home heating assistance for senior citizens and many more vital services,” the mayors wrote in a letter to Congress.

    “This Administration continues to exceed expectations for shocking the conscience, and now seeks to undermine a foundational element of our representative form of government, enshrined in our Constitution: the census,” Liccardo said.

    Richard Konda, executive director of legal services nonprofit Asian Law Alliance, said his group has conducted car caravans and social media outreach to get the word out. Konda said the coronavirus pandemic required a massive change in operations.

    “We had plans to be out in the community talking to groups, to organizations,” Konda said. “We had to convert to doing virtual, web-based things.”

    According to Noel Fernandez, community groups were only recently allowed to begin contacting people door-to-door. About 50 members of Working Partnerships’ Neighborhood Action Team have been canvassing every day, wearing masks, gloves and face shields. The canvassers also carry iPads to help residents complete their census forms at the door.

    “As a seasoned organizer, I was worried if people were going to answer the door… I’ve been proven wrong,” Noel Fernandez said. “People understand that it’s important, and when given the invitation, they’re doing it.”

    The census determines how communities are represented in Congress, and also informs how federal funds for programs such as Medicaid and food stamps are allocated. The decennial count also helps officials determine how much federal money should go to schools, hospitals and roads.

    Kuwada said it’s important for residents to know the Census does not ask questions about citizenship status, nor does it ask for Social Security numbers or banking information.

    “There’s no reason for you not to be counted,” Kuwada said. “It can only benefit you.”

    Konda said the citizenship issue has been worrisome to some residents, and it’s been harder to dispel those worries given the reduced circulation of print news media, particularly those targeted to specific ethnic groups.

    “People need to respond, they need to not be afraid,” Konda said. “It’s really important to the community in terms of getting the fair share of federal tax dollars and making sure that we have all of our representatives in Congress.”

    Noel Fernandez, who grew up in east San Jose, said the census is important to making sure underserved communities are represented.

    “It’s about our community claiming what should be ours,” Noel Fernandez said. “The census for me is about those services and about protecting democracy, especially given the national climate and the current administration.”

    Readers can complete their census form here or call 1-844-330-2020.

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

    Editor’s Note: Derecka Mehrens, the executive director of Working Partnerships USA, serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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