GLENDALE, Ariz. – The care packages, left outside closed apartment doors to curb the coronavirus, offer newly arrived refugee families a few items to ease their transition to life in the United States — canned goods, fresh produce and a short lesson in the importance of the census.
Refugee advocates would normally extend such assistance face to face, but the virus makes that impossible. Now advocacy organizations are concerned that the pandemic threatens not only the families’ health and safety but refugee participation in the national headcount, which will help determine how the government distributes some $1.5 trillion for refugees and everyone living in the areas where they settle.
To encourage refugees to take part, workers for the International Rescue Committee in suburban Phoenix include census instructions along with Swiss chard, fennel and green onions harvested from a refugee-run garden.
“The newest arrivals don’t know anything about the census. We have to educate them,” said Muktar Sheikh, program coordinator for the Somali Association of Arizona, who has worked to get the word out among local refugees.
The government-ordered lockdowns to help stop the spread of the virus have put a damper on census efforts that typically thrive on personal contact, especially in hard-to-count communities where fresh arrivals are trying to get a foothold. Because of the virus, census officials postponed field operations until June 1 and moved the deadline for finishing the count to Oct. 31.
“There is no question that the coronavirus knocked the wind out of census outreach, especially for communities that are harder to reach,” said D’Vera Cohn, a census specialist with the Pew Research Center in Washington. “But the good thing about everyone being home is that you know where to find them.”
Refugees are somewhat different than other immigrants because the government approves them for resettlement before they arrive, often after they have fled conflicts back home. They also get more help from agencies like the rescue committee, which work to help them gain self-sufficiency so they can apply for permanent residency after a year.
Kristen Aster, who helps lead the rescue committee’s census efforts, said the outbreak makes the count more important for refugees, who often rely on cash assistance and other government aid during their first months in the U.S.
“Even as we focus on the public health and safety of our communities, a fair and accurate census is a way we can support our communities for years to come,” Aster said.
Kelly Percival, a census specialist at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said that "every person who does not fill out the form translates into a loss of money for that community.”
But she said she is hopeful about the refugee community "because they are already in the system. The more records we have on someone, the better chance they'll have of being counted.”
With the rescue committee's Glendale office now closed, case workers are checking frequently on the health of refugees stuck at home but have not found anyone who has tested positive for the virus, said outreach coordinator Stanford T. Prescott.
They are also reminding refugees to fill out the census form. The rescue committee's local Facebook page now features videos encouraging census participation in seven languages, including Farsi, Nepali and Kirundi.
The agency’s San Diego office is calling nearly 10,000 clients from the last decade to ask about any needs regarding the virus and to remind them about the census. The Salt Lake City office is mailing postcards encouraging them to fill out the form.
Other groups are doing similar outreach.
Refugee & Immigrant Services Northwest in Everett, Washington, has been calling clients about their health weekly, and helping them fill out census forms, said Van Kuno, executive director. The National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Oakland, California, tells advocates they must “support our communities to participate” in the census despite social-distancing restrictions.
Those groups are trying to get coronavirus and census information to all categories of immigrants. Research has shown them to be at higher risk of being undercounted, and advocates worry that the unsuccessful push to add a citizenship question to the census may leave them wary of interacting with government officials.
President Donald Trump's decision to impose a historically low cap of 18,000 refugees for this year has complicated the resettlement program under policies closing the door to foreign-born people. A little over 7,000 refugees have been allowed into the U.S. so far, including 440 to Arizona.
The virus outbreak derailed the program further when resettlement was temporarily halted in March, disappointing families who have waited for years to come to the U.S. Many adult refugees already here have lost jobs in food service, hospitality and other industries disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
But refugees are among the groups that stand to benefit from recent legislation to ease the outbreak's effects. Lawmakers added $350 million to the State Department’s budget for migration and refugee assistance and set aside $1.3 billion for community health centers and $450 million for food banks.
Advocates said any future government grants will depend on getting an accurate census count.
Rescue committee staff member Clay Cranford drove that message home in February, before the health crisis, when he told the Spanish- and Burmese-speaking students in his citizenship class that completing the census would prepare them to be good Americans.
“Taking part will benefit your community. It will benefit your neighbor,” he said.