The COVID-19 pandemic may have disrupted the U.S. Census, but CAA has adapted to ensure that Chinese community members are counted. The census has been an important part of CAA’s work in civic engagement. CAA has served as an advisor to the City of San Francisco on the U.S. Census. Throughout 2019, CAA trained more than 500 staff from public agencies and community-based organizations on census outreach.

In February of this year, CAA hired a team of 10 Census Outreach Specialists to canvass neighborhoods across San Francisco, particularly in areas with historically low response rates such as Chinatown, Tenderloin, SOMA, and Bayview. After shelter in place began, our Outreach Specialists shifted their plan to remote phone banking. The team has made over 10,000 calls in Cantonese and Mandarin to let people know about the census and to offer assistance in filling out the forms. 

“For seniors, if you tell them about a website, they are unlikely to go on it. It’s hard for them to navigate,” says Eva Poon, CAA’s Policy Advocate, about the importance of providing questionnaire assistance.

Working with partner organizations, CAA’s Outreach Specialists are key to educating Chinese-speaking San Franciscans about the census, particularly as the Census Bureau itself has limited staffing for Chinese language assistance. CAA informs them about the ways to complete it (online, over the phone, or on paper), why it is important (census data is used to determine political representation and funding for public resources), and let them know that the data cannot be shared outside of the Census Bureau. 

In addition to helping people over the phone, our Outreach Specialists raise awareness through Weibo and WeChat and even hold online office hours on WeChat. In-language assistance is crucial since immigrants are among the “hard to count,” which means they’ve been traditionally undercounted in the U.S. Census. Language access, the digital divide, and mistrust of the federal government are common reasons why immigrant families may opt out of doing the census. 

Our Outreach Specialists will continue to phone bank through August, focusing on census tracts with low response rates. From August 11 to October 31, the Census Bureau will send out enumerators, who go door-to-door to households who have not completed the census. Our Outreach Specialists are educating people about this process and encouraging them to complete their census sooner rather than later.

“It’s a concern even if it wasn’t in the middle of a pandemic, especially for folks without immigration status who don’t want to be on the radar. People are fearful of someone at the door,” says Poon. 

Although we have stepped up our efforts, the reality is that there is still much more to do. Many residents in San Francisco live in hard-to-count housing situations, such as SROs, which contributes to San Francisco’s lower census response rate (60.4%) compared to California overall (63.6%). It’s important that enumerators do their job well to include everyone in the count, yet it’s also an impossible task to reach everyone. That’s why it’s even more crucial that CAA outreach to community members who are not English proficient. 

Trump has made things worse, Poon says, by attempting to add a citizenship question to the Census (which was rejected by the Supreme Court), and now by issuing a memorandum that excludes undocumented immigrants from the count for Congressional seats. Every person, regardless of immigration status, should count. CAA Co-Directors Cynthia Choi and Vincent Pan have joined as individual plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the memorandum.

You can fill out the 2020 U.S. Census three ways:

  • Online: (English, Chinese Simplified, and 11 other languages)
  • Phone (English: 844-330-2020; Mandarin: 844-391-2020; Cantonese: 844-398-2020)
  • Mail (Paper questionnaires in English/Spanish were mailed to households in April)

For those who need support during the form-filling process, call CAA at 415.761.3222 or access CAA’s WeChat account: CAASF2019.