When asked about the census, Babu Patel, manager of the grocery chain Patel Brothers, initially thought we were talking about India's national anthem. Patel had confused the Hindi term for population count, jansankhya, for the anthem's title, "Jana Gana Mana." "Republic Day wala gaana," he said, guessing that I wanted to discuss the song regularly blasted at parades on India's Independence Day.
Patel, who wears glasses with his standard forest-green Patel Brothers vest, has lived in America for 35 years and speaks some English, though he is more comfortable in Hindi. In those three and a half decades, no one has come to his Devon Avenue store, a staple for stocking the cupboards of South Asian Americans across the country with imported spices and snacks, or to his home in neighboring Lincolnwood to share information about the count. "Abhi koi aya nahi," Patel said in Hindi, explaining that no outreach worker, census bureau representative, or any type of communication has arrived about the count. He has never heard of the census in America before or filled it out.
Geeta Jyoshi, who works at Roopkala Salon on Devon, had also never heard of the census. Only after I switched our conversation to Hindi and clarified what the census was did Jyoshi explain that she would "definitely need someone's help" to fill out the survey and to understand the English questions. She added that no one has even come to the business, which occupies a storefront on one of the busiest stretches of Devon, or her home to explain that the census would be happening.
Patel and Jyoshi are just two Chicagoans who are deemed "hard to count." This category makes up 48 percent of Chicago, just shy of half of the city's population. These are Americans with disabilities, renters, people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, immigrants, those lacking Internet access, college students, children under five, individuals with low English literacy—all people commonly missed in census outreach efforts.
For each person who doesn't fill out the census, community organizations and public service providers lose $1,400 in federal funding from the state. The hardest hit programs—like Medicaid, SNAP, and Head Start—tend to be used by lower-income Chicagoans who are less likely to fill out the census, as well as community-based organizations that do work with immigrant communities whose funding is contingent on census numbers. This can be hard to communicate to South Asians in advance of the count.
"Just the idea of immigrants even accessing benefits is very taboo," said Nida Hasan, coordinator of civic engagement programming at the Indo-American Center, a nonprofit on the north side that provides services to Chicago's immigrants from South Asia. So arguing that immigrants should participate in the census in order to continue to receive benefits is not necessarily the best strategy.
Instead, she and other civic engagement professionals like Shobhana Verma of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute often explain that in ethnically segregated or concentrated cities like Chicago, underrepresentation through the census can lead to entire communities or ethnicities having access only to crumbling infrastructure.
"South Asians care about schools, senior services, parks, roads, public transit, health-care funding," Verma explained. "We had an event recently, where we touched on the census and we were literally talking to people about their day-to-day lives. People were leaving their chairs and standing by us to ask questions."
For the South Asian community, one of the most consequential impacts of the census is language access in voting. If a constituency crosses a population threshold, language access has to be provided to that community under the Voting Rights Act. This is the rule under which Hindi ballots are provided today.
The census, through its influence on the configuration of voting districts, also determines, to an extent, the political power a community will have over the next ten years. Through this redistricting process, Asian-opportunity districts (where at least 50 percent of voters are Asian Americans), Asian-influence districts (where Asian Americans constitute 20-30 percent of the district's population), and multiracial districts (where Asian Americans may be less than a majority, but minority groups together constitute a majority) are created to ensure that Asian Americans have a say in choosing their elected officials. For Asian Chicagoans, this isn't an abstraction: The 2010 census resulted in Illinois's second House district being redrawn to give Chinatown a stronger voice in the district's representation. In 2016, Theresa Mah was the first Asian American elected to the Illinois House or Senate, as a Chinese American woman from the second district representing Chinatown. "Our entire ability to have representation hinges on this," said Mansi Kathuria of the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago.
The U.S. Census Bureau is not including outreach to speakers of South Asian languages in its 2020 paid media campaign. And while the census is offered online in 13 languages and on paper in two, not a single South Asian language makes the list. Last year, Illinois appropriated $29 million in the state budget for census work, less funding than was allocated in 2010 even though costs for administering the census have nearly tripled. The census bureau has also downsized across the country, from 12 regional offices and 500 local offices in 2010 to six regional offices and about 250 local offices. Because of this change in capacity, it has reached out to more partner organizations to work with the hard-to-count community.
Organizations like the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute, the Indo-American Center, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago convened an Asian American census summit in February with over a dozen community groups in attendance to strategize and share best practices before launching outreach efforts. Leading up to the count, these organizations are holding census workshops and playing census bingo to teach the vocabulary of the survey to ESL classes, and bringing conversations about the count to community forums to discuss the importance of the census. "We're also going to be knocking on 4,000 doors over the next three months and doing about 3,500 phone calls," Kathuria added.
Mounting an operation to tackle a census requires new tools and new databases, as organizations build their operation from the ground up. "Normally we use the voter activation network, but that is only a database of registered voters and we're trying to target literally every single person in the state," Kathuria said. "So we've been able to acquire household data and we send people out to that region and tell them to knock on every single door."
But once the door is knocked, the challenge to start a real conversation often begins. "Hindi isn't the end-all, be-all South Asian language," said Hasan of the Indo-American Center. "We have, of course, South Asians who are Indians and Pakistani, but we also have a Rohingya population here in Chicago. The Nepali population is also a significant South Asian population in Illinois specifically. In addition to Nepalis, there are a lot of Bengalis here. Outreach workers may even know multiple languages but they'll know Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati. But there are certain South Asian populations that might just speak Nepali or Bengali."
This diversity of nationalities fits into two ethnicity categories on the census: "Asian Indian" and "other Asian"; the latter category groups communities like Pakistanis and Bangladeshis with Laotian and Thai Americans. "All South Asian folks might not know that, yeah, like that's supposed to be you," said Kathuria, laughing.
With county, state, and national elections coming up in the next few months, civic engagement organizations are overwhelmed with the breadth of conversations they need to have with South Asian Americans while also staying on top of census outreach. "More than half of the folks we're reaching out to, they're not registered voters or might not be eligible to vote, so this is a much bigger operation," said Kathuria. "But my hope is that by talking to a bigger group of people, we are able to register new voters and get new people drawn into the civic process."
Jyoshi came to Chicago from Gujarat five years ago and initially stated that she wouldn't even qualify to fill out the census because she isn't a citizen, a common misconception among South Asians living and working in Chicago who believe the survey is only for those who have already gained citizenship.
Of the dozens of people I met on the streets near Devon or spoke with over the phone while calling businesses on the South Asian avenue on the city's far north side, Sneh Sukhadia, a manager at Sukhadia's Sweets and Snacks who graduated from DePaul three years ago, was the only one who had a working knowledge of the impending count. Sukhadia is 24 years old and filled orders for sweets and salty snacks stacked behind the glass cases that surround the register as he explained his family's knowledge of the census. "Well that's probably because I'm younger, right?" he said. "My parents didn't even know that we got an e-mail [about the census being digitized]. They don't really have an idea about it."
"Every household will get a digital code," Hasan told me. "But the barcode, I've seen it, it's a little bit challenging, even for me. And I'm here as a millennial who thinks this procedure is confusing."
With the census going digital, the large portion of Chicago's South Asian population that isn't computer literate is getting shut out of the process. Jyoshi and Patel don't regularly use the Internet or check an e-mail inbox, a common experience for many of the 35 percent of adults in the United States who do not have Internet access at home. But in households like Sukhadia's, in which young people take the lead on managing communications and filling out the survey, going digital might net a few more respondents than the 2010 effort.
Within the South Asian American population, university students are often comparatively overrepresented in the census, bolstering the myth that the South Asian American community is largely well-educated, wealthy, young, and professional, and hiding the realities of life for South Asian seniors, undocumented South Asian Americans (the second largest undocumented population in the state), those who are housing insecure, and workers patching together three or four jobs to make ends meet.
Sukhadia's family of U.S. citizens is far less suspicious about the census than many of their neighbors. "I know a lot of store owners and people in the South Asian community more generally are on H-1 visas. They hear anything about the government, they'll run," he said.
"There's no question about citizenship," my mom, who was there with me, interjected as Sukhadia rang us up for jalebis and aloo tikki chaat by the pound. "There used to be one, though," Sukhadia said, a fact that South Asians in America haven't forgotten in the several decades since the question was removed from the survey. In light of the Trump administration's well-publicized efforts to have a citizenship question reinstated in the census after 70 years and the Supreme Court's relatively quieter decision to prevent it from happening, for now, Sukhadia explained that the actual content of the survey factors less into his neighbors' decision than the rumors they've heard about it.
"Well it's Devon, so, yeah. People just get a little freaked out because they don't understand this stuff about the government," Sukhadia said of documented community members' feelings that filling out the census could put their undocumented relatives at risk.
It's not just fears about documentation that keep many low-income South Asians from participating in the census. "The first two questions in the census ask about how many people are staying in a place of residence and the third question asks about the ownership of the unit. "Often South Asian immigrant families on the north side are on these month-to-month leases," explained Hasan. "They're dealing with these tense landlord and tenant situations because the lack of affordable housing has families occupying every room in every unit. Their concern is if you submit X amount of people live in your house, somehow it'll loop back to their landlord."
"Broadly in immigrant communities right now trust in the government is so low," said Kathuria. "Trust that they have your best interest in mind and the idea that you should be giving your information to this entity through which you might have experienced the Muslim ban, the government separating families at the border, making it harder for you and your family to immigrate from the country you came from, eliminating spousal visas for H-1B holders. It also kind of tracks with what we see with Asian Americans and voting, which is that we're not. We don't vote at very high rates. The kind of structural racism that comes up in the political process makes folks feel like we don't have a place in public life necessarily or civic life. You get the idea just to kind of stay in your lane or do your own thing and just focus on yourself and your family." v
This story was made possible by a grant from the McCormick Foundation administered by Public Narrative.