Libia Estrella is exactly the type of San Francisco resident the Census Bureau will have the most trouble counting.
The 45-year-old English as a Second Language (ESL) student and immigrant from the Mexico has been staying with friends because she can’t yet afford her own place. Added to her constant mobility is her uneasiness about being contacted by federal employees.
“People want to cooperate but what keeps them from cooperating is deportation,” said Estrella, a City College of San Francisco student, as she waited for her Monday evening class to start.
Also hard to count are the poor living in crowded housing, African Americans, Hispanics, recent immigrants and limited English speakers. That’s why San Francisco City College and the Census Bureau partnered recently to ensure Mission District residents from those hard-to-count groups are tallied.
Although college students are not traditionally seen as a difficult-to-count population, they are moving constantly and that makes them hard to locate.
“They’re a transient population, couch surfers,” said Chris Jackson, a City College board of trustee. “They move residences every semester. It’s hard to pin down the average college student.”
Data collected from the Census Bureau is used to redraw congressional districts, apportion congressional seats and divvy up more than $400 billion to local, state and tribal governments each year. States use the monies to help fund rehabilitation programs, children services, Medicaid and basic vocational programs, among others.
It also helps determine what neighborhoods need additional schools or health clinics.
The census estimates that more than three million people were undercounted during the Census 2000.
One way the agency is trying to get a more accurate number is to hire people who are familiar with those communities and who speak the languages spoken by immigrant communities, including Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and Russian, said Sonny Le, a spokesman for the Census Bureau.
“We like to have people who live there…who know the landscape,” Le said.
While the Census’ short form questionnaire, which will be available in Spanish and English for the first time, does not ask for people’s citizenship or legal status, some are wary of leaving a paper trail.
After a string of workplace immigration raids and deportations in neighborhoods across the nation, including some in the Bay Area, some immigrants are reluctant to participate.
“There’s a lack of confidence that the data they provide will be kept private and will not be turned over to any agency,” said Rosalind Gold, senior analyst in the Los Angeles office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“It’s not only a matter of sending a message that the information will be kept private but that you being counted is directly translated to benefits,” she said.
Her organization, in partnership with grassroots organizers across the United States, will kick off a national campaign on Oct. 1 to educate Latinos that compiling these numbers could mean increased federal funding and political power.
Telemundo, the second largest Spanish-language content distributor, has also included a census storyline in their popular telenovela “Más Sabe el Diablo,” “The Devil Knows Best,” to persuade viewers to be counted.
Yet immigrant residents like Estrella are not fully convinced.
When asked if she planned to participate in the 2010 Census, she said, “I’d like to participate one day in the future, but not now.”