2020 Census outreach
Hoda Dahir, a civic-engagement coordinator with CAIR-MN, helps community members fill out census forms outside 24 Somali Mall, in Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The fall air was brisk, but that didn’t deter Hoda Dahir from planting herself outside the 24 Somali Mall in Ventura Village, where she sat at a table across from three outreach workers for the U.S. Census. All were stopping people coming in and out of the mall, doing “mobile questionnaire assistance.”  

In other words, they were encouraging people to ensure they are counted in the census, either by filling out an online form or calling in their information by phone. 

Hoda chatted in Somali with shoppers coming into the mall on Thursday, asking them if they had filled out their census forms, and talking to them about why it’s important. It’s part of her role as a civic engagement coordinator with CAIR-MN, which partnered with the U.S. Census on efforts to make sure immigrant and refugee communities are counted.

This year’s census is embroiled in political controversy and legal disputes, and the count has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court this summer ruled against the Trump administration’s effort to add a question about citizenship to the census form. On Thursday a lower court blocked the administration from acting on a memo from Trump that would exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted. 

Somalis also have been subject to another of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. They were included in the travel ban that Trump instituted shortly after taking office in 2017 for seven predominantly Muslim countries. 

For Hoda, the issues are local, and time is running out. Participation in the census is often low in immigrant communities. That can translate into fewer services, and a lower level of participation in civic life. This part of the census was to have been wrapped up by the end of July, but it was extended until the end of September because of the pandemic. The mobile questionnaire assistance ends September 18. CAIR-MN has been setting out a table like this nearly every day, Hoda said. 

“We’re either at Karmel Mall or 24 Mall between 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., engaging with the community, helping them fill out fill out their census, as well as voting registration forms, which I bring with,” Hoda saId. “We also have some flyer papers that explain in Somali and Arabic about why it’s important to do the census.” The census workers are nearby with their official Commerce Department ID badges. 

“In Minnesota, we have the largest Somali population outside of the Somalia,” Hoda said. “We want all of our people to be counted, as well as get the rightly deserved funds for our community.” 

“I’m talking about education resources for the students like after school programs,” she said. “I’m talking about workforce resources for adults who do not speak English.” Hoda added that workforce development, legal aid, health care, and housing funds all rely on making sure the census traces accurate numbers. 

Hoda also said the census can help build momentum for the community, “So we can be counted not only to gather funds for our community, but to be part of the community that makes change.” On Thursday afternoon, Hoda had a number of conversations with elders as she handed out flyers and provided information.

The pandemic halted many of the ways engagement teams had planned on reaching people, like attending Friday prayers, going to Ramadan gatherings, visiting schools, or setting up a table at community events. Even so, Hoda said the teams had made progress. 

“We’ve been doing great effort on counting,” she said. Still, response rates for neighborhoods with large East African communities are not great. 

Andrew Virden, the director of census operations and engagement for Minnesota’s demographic center, the state’s liaison to the Census Bureau, said the pandemic took hold just as forms were going out.

The result is that Minnesota, while above average in self-responses, falls below the national average for people being counted after not self-responding, according to the census bureau website. In the  heavily East African Cedar Riverside neighborhood, the response rate is only about 50 percent. 

Other neighborhoods that have low self-response counts include East Phillips, Ventura Village, and Prospect Park, all neighborhoods with significant Somali populations, according to research by the Wilder Foundation. Neighborhoods with high Hmong populations, like Frogtown, also have seen low response rates. 

“Folks were in isolation for an extended amount of time. I am not surprised the response rate is lower— it wasn’t possible because we were all locked up at home,” he said. 

The census forms aren’t translated into Hmong, Somali, or Oromo

Low response rates, especially in neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrant and refugee residents, aren’t unique to 2020. One major problem, which existed in 2010 as well, Virden said, is that the census forms are not available in Hmong, Somali, or Oromo.

“The bureau does have a language guide in Somali, but it’s like a glossary,” Virden said. “You have to translate it yourself. It’s like if someone asks you for help and you hand them a dictionary.” 

The census does have forms translated into 12 of the most prominent languages in the U.S., according to Virden. “We just don’t have a lot of people that speak those languages here.” 

That lack of translated forms may result in a much lower count of Somali residents in Minnesota than there really are, he said. “According to the census, there are 45,000 or 50,000 Somalis in Minnesota,” Virden said. “My East African friends tell me that number is probably double that, because folks didn’t get the form or didn’t understand the form.” 

Besides the language barrier, other reasons for the undercount include mistrust of government, and fears by some of their landlords. “The fear is not that I’m worried I’m going to get deported. It’s ‘What if the census bureau tells my landlord I’m violating my lease agreement?’” Virden said.  

There are also lingering fears, especially among undocumented immigrants, that filling out the census form might make one vulnerable to being picked up by ICE agents.

To help build trust with hesitant community members the Census Bureau, along with its city and state partners, have worked with nonprofit organizations that already have relationships with immigrant populations. 

For example, the Kayd Foundation, run by founder Mohamed Ahmed, have spearheaded a phone banking program which hired and trained people to make phone calls to East African community members. 

“We convince people it is something we have to do,” Ahmed said. 

In the last month and a half, the Kayd Foundation’s four staff members logged 300 hours phone banking, according to Ahmed. Their method involves three steps, beginning with an Islamic greeting, then asking about the person’s health, and finally asking the person if they’ve filled out the census. 

“If you start with census, people get shocked,” he said. 

Besides phone banking, partner organizations like Pillsbury United Communities employ social and traditional media, such as their radio station KRSM, to get the word out. According to Meghan Marriott, communications manager with PUC, the organization also has made a video in English, Oromo, and Somali. “Videos are a good way to connect to folks,” she said. “Flyers can’t accomplish everything.”

PUC also hosted two job fairs for census workers. “We knew it was going to be very important to have enumerators from the community,” she said. However, the job fairs might not have been particularly effective, Marriott said, in part because it took so long for the Census Bureau to get back to applicants.

According to Sam Fettig, Minnesota partnership coordinator for the U.S. Census, enumerators carry language cards with them which allows them to connect families to census bureau staff that speaks their language. 

Fettig said the bureau is continuing to work with local partners through September, doing the kind of work Hoda does at the malls. “Otherwise our census takers or enumerators will continue knocking on those doors that hadn’t responded,” he said. “And keep following up and encouraging people that way up to the end here at the end of September.” 

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...