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Undocumented immigrants battle to be counted within the census

“Despite the U.S. Constitutional mandate to count everyone living in this country, this illegal memo, rhetoric, and fear-mongering tactics could negatively impact Oregon’s critical immigrant communities from being counted in the census,” wrote Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett, campaign manager We Count Oregon, in an emailed statement.

We Count Oregon is the first woman of color-led statewide census campaign in Oregon. Led by Tervalon-Garrett, We Count Oregon is a collective campaign focused on hard-to-count communities. Hard-to-count groups are those who have “a real or perceived barrier” to participation and inclusion in the data collection process. Children under 5 years old and their parents, rural residents, people of color, immigrants, and renters are among those considered hard to count.

For Tervalon-Garrett, census organizing is a means of “deepen[ing] infrastructure that already exists between organizations and communities.” Instead of parachuting into communities, the We Count Oregon campaign has prioritized working with local organizations across the state with existing relationships and trust in undocumented communities.

“We saw it as an opportunity to make sure that rural Eastern Oregon was counted and heard,” said Zaira Sanchez, census equity coordinator for Raíces, a Latinx-led grassroots organization based out of Umatilla County, Oregon.

Speaking with Prism in late spring, Sanchez spoke of the need to make sure all communities, including undocumented people, are represented and supported in a way that is consistent with community needs in this moment. For Sanchez, making sure counts are as accurate as possible provides more opportunities for funding and resources for specific needs in the communities served by their organization.

“There’s a high need, in terms of resources and programs for our families to really thrive and be successful out here,” said Sanchez.

Enrique Ruiz, the field and data manager for Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, spoke with Prism about the challenge to getting people to make time to fill out the census. “Last thing people are thinking about is filling out the census, which is a shame,” he said. “But with our message, people recognize that it’s important. It’s something everybody can do whether you’re documented or undocumented.”

Tervalon-Garrett pointed to the prior apportionment as motivation for making sure everyone counts. “We missed the sixth congressional seat in 2010 by 40,000 people,” Tervalon-Garrett said in an interview with Prism. “This sixth congressional seat is huge for us, especially as our state is becoming more brown. And there’s an opportunity for us to have representation for all of our communities, including our undocumented migrants who come here, who literally power this state’s agricultural industry.”

According to Tervalon-Garrett, one in nine people in Oregon live with an undocumented person. Pointing attention to the hypocrisy in the treatment of farmworkers in the state, Tervalon-Garret said a lot of effort has gone into making sure people know they can and should participate in the census. “We want to make sure that folks are not afraid to participate in this process and that they are being counted. Because they are essentially the heart of our state,” said Tervalon-Garrett.

Although excluded from the census, the notorious census citizenship question and the fear it has instilled in people has been an ongoing barrier to overcome in organizing for an accurate and fair census count. The Trump administration’s recent memorandum has regalvanized concerns about how collected census information might be used to target undocumented immigrants.

“I totally understand the fear and want to validate that experience and those feelings and those fears,” said Sanchez. “But I’m trying everything I can to convince people that it’s safe to participate.”

“The citizenship question created so much fear,” said Tervalon-Garrett. “To be honest, as a Black woman who is a citizen, I was concerned about how I wanted to answer the citizenship question. The whole question and political dynamics seemed really fraught.”

Ruiz emphasized the need for having clear and accurate information to help community members make informed decisions. Restricting counts would erase the real diversity of many areas, while further compounding the challenges of marginalized communities. Calling Facebook a “rabbit hole,” Ruiz spoke of the need to battle misinformation.

“We’re fortunate enough to have that kind of leverage with our community and give them the right information,” said Ruiz. “We are doing the very best we can to have a presence both on Facebook and other social media platforms as well as the radio.”

The census remains an important tool for providing opportunity and resources to states, nonprofit organizations, and local communities across the country. Misinformation and fear could lead to entire segments of communities in need not completing the census. Shortages and financial constraints borne out through the COVID-19 pandemic have made the case for having accurate community counts.

“As immigrants, as renters, as working-class and working-poor folks, as rural communities don’t have power we have power,” said Tervalon-Garrett. “We have voices. We’re not invisible, and we literally count … We matter. We want to be counted. We’re important in our communities.”

Anoa Changa is Prism’s electoral justice staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @thewaywithanoa.

Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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