Study: Census campaign targeting Spanish-speakers generating good response

Watch The Federal Eye test the U.S. Census Bureau's "Ten Questions, Ten Minutes" promise as he fills out the 2010 census questionnaire -- with his wife's help.
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010; 11:34 AM

Recent Hispanic immigrants are more likely to return their census questionnaires than Hispanics born in the United States, according to a new study that suggests a census campaign targeting Spanish speakers has been wildly successful.

A telephone survey of about 1,000 people conducted in the third week of March by the Pew Hispanic Center also found that foreign-born Hispanics are less skeptical that their census information will remain confidential.

The study was released Thursday, which the government has dubbed "Census Day" -- the day by which, officials hope, people will have filled out their forms and mailed them in. To encourage participation, the White House released a photo of President Obama filling out his census questionnaire.

The government will continue to promote the census throughout April, particularly in areas that have low response rates. At the end of the month, officials will compile lists of addresses from which surveys have not been received by mail. Census-takers will be dispatched to those addresses to try to get census questions answered face-to-face.

Major Hispanic organizations have said there is widespread fear among immigrants that census data will be shared with immigration authorities. To counter that concern, they have stressed the confidentiality of the census in a campaign called "Ya es hora. ¬°Hagase contar!" or "It's time to be counted."

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, declared himself "giddy" about the survey's results.

"It shows the work we have been doing has had an impact," he said of the effort that enlisted newscasters, entertainers and other prominent Latinos to spread the message that Hispanics should send in their forms regardless of their legal status. "It shows that this population understands what we need do as a community to move forward, to be counted and to be heard."

But, ironically, the survey suggests that the message did not get through so readily to U.S.-born Hispanics. While 91 percent of the foreign-born said they had returned their census forms or would do so soon, only 78 percent of the U.S.-born said they would participate. Both figures would be an improvement over the last census, when just 69 percent of Hispanic households mailed in their forms.

Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in the United States, as well as the fastest growing. About 35 million were counted in the 2000 Census, and they were estimated to number 47 million by 2008, or 15 percent of the population.

This year, the Census Bureau mailed bilingual forms to neighborhoods with a large Hispanic presence. It also spent more than $25 million, about one-fifth of its total advertising budget, for Spanish-language media.

The sharp focus on messages in Spanish may have created the disparity in how recent immigrants and natives regard the census.

Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, said that recent immigrants are the main consumers of Spanish-language programs aired on Univision and Telemundo, which introduced a census-taker as a character in its top-rated telenovela.. Generations born in the United States tend to prefer English-language media.

"The more acculturated you are, the more you have the same views as the rest of mainstream America, and a lot of folks are distrustful of government," she said. "They're not watching Univision, and they're not getting counter messages in a meaningful way."

The Pew survey also suggests that a census boycott called by some Hispanic evangelical ministers to protest the lack of immigration reform has been a failure. Only 16 percent said they had heard calls for a boycott.

"We're not sure why it didn't gain traction," said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "We know that when it was announced, there was a very broad effort to counter it."

Carlos Aragon, general manager of Radio Fiesta, which broadcasts in the Washington area, said many Hispanics consider the boycott "ridiculous." He also said he hears myths that the Census Bureau will turn in undocumented immigrants to the authorities.

José Robles, director of Hispanic Ministry in the Phoenix Catholic Diocese, said the concern about census data being handed over to authorities is more pronounced among members of the clergy than it is among parishioners. The diocese has heavily promoted the census, but Arizonans are among those who are slower to return their forms than the national average.

The states whose response rates are lagging cut a broad swath through the South and the Southwest.

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