Aleja Ospina is the Outreach Community Director at the Village Exchange Center. She is working with immigrant communities helping with the 2020 census.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

The public battle about making sure people aren’t afraid to be counted in the upcoming census is over.

The fear, however, may have won out.

A citizenship question on the Census was defeated last year. For communities like Aurora, which have diversity woven into every aspect of their culture, there is still some anxiety that immigrant and refugee communities won’t participate.  An undercount could mean fewer federal dollars for important city services and programs.

When Aurorans fill in the bubbles on their Census forms before April 1, they won’t be asked whether they are citizens, which Hispanic and immigrant advocacy groups say is a win. But the damage may be done for immigrants and residents who already fear and distrust a federal government infamous for deporting mostly Hispanic and undocumented people.

Aleja Ospina, outreach coordinator for the Village Exchange Center, works with immigrants and refugees on a daily basis. She’s also serving on the City of Aurora’s Census committee trying to build trust around the Census, the annual count of how many people live in the U.S.’s myriad states, cities, counties and townships.

That committee is made up of community leaders among homeless residents and first-generation immigrants, people that are traditionally hard to reach.

The goal: Dispelling fears to encourage participation in the Census, be it online, over the phone or on paper.

Aurora has been identified as a region where there are “hard-to-count” communities, so state dollars and extra resources have been allocated to help get the count as close to accurate as possible. From the state Department of Local Affairs, Adams County received $420,000 in funds, Arapahoe County received just more than $102,000 and the City of Aurora got $53,600 for Census outreach.

All homes in the U.S. are slated to receive forms before April 1, the deadline to participate. Residents can complete the Census beginning March 12, and online for the first time in U.S. history. Respondents will be able to choose from scores of languages.

The stakes are high, Ospina said. The Census is a critical assessment of the American public. An under-count could mean less money coming to Aurora for important social services preventing people from falling through the cracks and rid Aurora of political representation in government.

Through her work with the VEC, city government and Casa De Paz, a group supporting immigrants held at Aurora’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention center, Ospina is getting the impression that many immigrants are afraid of becoming counted by the government or are simply not interested in participating.

“Suddenly, you find the Census, and (it says) you will be counted. That sounds like, ‘You will be deported,’” she said some residents are thinking.

“‘Why do they need my address? Are they going to give that information to other government agencies? Are they going to give that to other immigration offices?’” Alicia Santos, Senior Communications and Marketing Strategist for the City of Aurora, said of the concerns she’s hearing from residents. “Basically, they are based off fear.”

Ospina noted there are undocumented residents in Aurora who have stayed under the radar for decades, avoiding interactions with government. Why would they let themselves be counted?

“It’s a huge challenge,” Ospina said.

The stakes are particularly high in Aurora.

In 2018 about one-fifth of the city’s nearly 375,000 residents were foreign-born. About 30 percent of Aurora locals identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2017.

Ospina thinks that, despite a massive advertising campaign in 1,000 languages and an effort from city government, Aurora will still be a bit under-counted. But she and others with links to Aurora communities and government are giving it their all to get people aware and on-board.

FILE – In this June 27, 2019, file photo, demonstrators gather at the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington. A prominent Latino organization said Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau needs to explicitly communicate there will be no citizenship question ahead of the 2020 count, or risk undercounting minority groups. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Question controversies

Distrust about the 2020 Census began early when the Trump administration tried to use the Census to ask specifically whether the respondent was a citizen.

Critics said the question would scare away immigrant respondents, in turn hurting Democrats’ political prospects when seats in government bodies such as the House of Representatives are eventually expanded based on Census population counts.

At a local level, lawmakers voiced concerns that an undercount would mean fewer federal dollars being funneled into the city.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually barred the question from the Census and the Trump administration dropped it.

Census respondents will instead simply be asked the number of people living in their home, their phone number for any discrepancies, and information about the person who owns the home or pays rent such as their sex and race.

According to draft Census questions, respondents will also be asked specifically whether the person who pays rent or owns their home is of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.”

The Census is also not anonymous.

Even without the citizenship question, community leaders have been concerned over who would answer the once-a-decade population survey.

For those who are not citizens, are undocumented or are living with undocumented family members, government interaction, like with the U.S. Census Bureau, can spark fear of being identified and removed from the country.

But a decision not to answer the census could have drastic impacts.

A May report from the National Latino Commission predicted the survey will be “inaccurate and incomplete, causing national damage.” The nonprofit group predicted political representation will be less democratic, federal funding will be misdirected and organizations and businesses will base decisions off erroneous population data.

Santos said an undercount could strip the City of millions of dollars in federal funding. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rely on Census data, as does highway construction planning, the Section 8 Housing Voucher program, various Housing and Urban Development funding, and educational Title 1 funding attached to poor students.

So far, some data has indicated some Latino residents could be hard-pressed to fill out a Census form. A national test survey sent out last year found areas that are almost half Latino residents had a 37% self-response, while areas with between 11% and 49% Latino residents had a 48% self-response rate.

FILE – In a Wednesday, July 24, 2019 file photo, U.S. Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham testifies before the House Oversight subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington. With the start of the 2020 census just a month away for most U.S. residents, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham is going to Capitol Hill Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 to update lawmakers about the agency’s readiness for the federal government’s largest peacetime operation. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

A Massive Campaign

An undercount is a reality Aurora wants to avoid. Over the coming months, it will be nearly impossible to avoid messages about the Census and how important it is to participate.

The Census Bureau’s outreach campaign is designed to reach over 99 percent of the nation’s 140 million households with messaging about the upcoming 2020 Census and the importance of responding. Invitations to respond will arrive between March 12 and 20. Almost every person living in the United States will be reached an average of 40 times during the lifetime campaign, the Census Bureau said, which will take place through TV, the radio, newspapers, surfing the web and outdoor billboards and bus stops.

While ads for reaching multicultural and hard-to-count populations have been running since mid-January, the newest ads are designed to reach everyone. The advertising launched in a variety of media including digital, print and radio on Feb. 17.

The Census Bureau said its ads were based on research and recommendations on “positive messaging.”

One of the ads shows friends having dinner raising concerns of whether the responses will be shared with police or the “migra,” as immigration authorities are known. One of the men in the commercial says he filled it out 10 years ago and was still around.

Dodging the Census Bureau’s campaign will be difficult, but even beyond that the city of Aurora is deploying its own set of efforts.

Seven in 10 Americans say they are very likely to participate in the 2020 census. But older, white and highly educated adults express greater certainty compared with younger adults, black and Hispanic Americans and those without college degrees. ;

Santos said ads will play before the feature films at area movie theaters, on TV and on social media platforms from Instagram to Facebook. Readers of area newspapers serving immigrant communities will also see city ads. Not even streaming services will be spared. Ads will also appear there.

Aurora City Council members say they have also been doing their part to educate about the Census. Ward I councilwoman Crystal Murillo, who represents the most diverse part of the city, has hosted town halls specifically dedicated to Census information. She said she realizes the city faces a challenge in getting an accurate count.

“We have one opportunity to get as accurate of a count as possible because it determines 10 years of (funding),” she said. “I want to do my part to make sure we get the funding we need and deserve.”

The advertisements and City Census committee all emphasize the same message: Census information is not shared with any other government agency, let alone U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. It’s crucial information for residents driving on roads built with federal government help, residents with children going to area schools receiving federal grants and Aurorans checking into area hospitals relying on federal funding, Santos said.

She’s optimistic that the City’s engaged community leaders, such as Ospina, can help communicate that message.

“You’re a human being, you live here. That’s all we need to know,” Santos said.