Why Asian-Americans Are the Least Likely to Fill Out the 2020 Census

The Trump administration is making AANHPIs fearful of counting themselves in

Photo: © Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images

TThe 2020 census is around the corner, and a report issued earlier this year reaches a troubling conclusion: Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs) are the racial groups least likely to complete it. Only 55% of AANHPIs intend to complete the census, compared to 64% of blacks, 65% of Hispanics, and 69% of whites.

Population data generated from the census, which occurs every 10 years as mandated by the Constitution, apportions the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, draws state legislative district boundaries and school districts, and ascertains the need for funding crucial services like health care, education, and transportation. The federal government distributes $800 billion to states based on the census count.

Responding to the census, like voting, is an opportunity to have a voice in the government. Members of a community who aren’t counted risk being denied the resources they need.

“Census data is tied to power,” says Terry Minnis, senior director of the census and voting programs for the nonprofit organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “If the count is not accurate, communities end up losing out. Resources will not be divvied up in a proportional manner.”

The fact that AANHPIs are the most reluctant racial groups to fill out the census may come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. The model minority myth, which paints the community as a dutiful, compliant, educated, and high-achieving monolith, obscures the attitudes and behaviors of a very diverse population. The AANHPI community includes immigrants and descendants with roots in some 40 countries, and many of these countries include dozens of distinct ethnic groups.

This means the model minority myth, which treats all AANHPIs as if they are equals, ends up harming less-privileged members of the Asian American community. “It leads many policymakers to assume that the government has little responsibility to address the needs of low-income Asian Americans, particularly among those groups who have arrived in the U.S. as the result of war and political conflict in their countries of origin,” says Janelle Wong, senior researcher at AAPI data and a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland.

The model minority myth, which paints the community as a dutiful, compliant, educated, and high-achieving monolith, obscures the attitudes and behaviors of a very diverse population.

Case in point: The poverty rate for Southeast Asians, many of whom came as refugees in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, is higher than the average national poverty rate of 11%. A closer look reveals that Hmong people and Cambodians have a poverty rate of 31% and 18%, respectively, compared to 25% for Native Americans, 21% for African Americans, and 18% for Latinx people.

As an aggregate, 50% of AANHPIs have bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 31% of whites, 19% blacks, and 14% Latinx. But the disaggregated data tells a different story. Only 17% of Hmong people have bachelor’s degrees or higher. Pacific Islanders have bachelor’s degrees at a rate of 19% of less.

Misconceptions about AANHPIs and privilege pose a significant risk. Social programs intended to address issues like low income and low education attainment rates will ignore the specific obstacles facing some AANHPI groups. “They will fall further and further behind,” Minnis says.

So why are members of the AANHPI community reluctant to fill out the census?

Many AANWPIs simply aren’t aware of it. “Fifty percent of AANHPIs came to the United States after 1990. One-third of them have come to the United States since the last census in 2010,” Wong says. “There have not been generations of census takers in the community.”

AANHPIs may also be reluctant to complete the census because of the current political climate.

And though the media continues to focus its immigration coverage along the U.S-Mexico border, in most years since 2010, more immigrants hailed from Asian and Pacific Islander countries than any other part of the world. In 2017, the three highest number of immigrants came from India (126,000), Mexico (124,000), and China (121,000).

AANHPIs may also be reluctant to complete the census because of the current political climate. “Fears are heightened. Xenophobic and racist rhetoric from government officials, groups, and individuals is creating a very tense environment,” Minnis says. This fear is especially rampant in the undocumented community. Under Trump, detentions and deportations of Cambodians and Vietnamese have skyrocketed, and with it, the anxiety that their residency status in the United States could be in jeopardy. (Contrary to popular belief, the fastest-growing population of undocumented immigrants are Asians, not Mexicans.)

What might alleviate the fear?

An understanding that the census is confidential. Under the federal Census Act, data can’t be shared with courts, government agencies, or law enforcement. “It can’t be used for anything other than statistical purposes,” Minnis says, “and can’t be used to harm the respondent.” In addition, after much protest, significant litigation, and a Supreme Court decision, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed to exclude the citizenship question from the 2020 census. Respondents will not have to reveal their residency status on the form.

Despite this, widespread outreach to raise awareness of the census presents challenges. For years, AAPIs were concentrated in neighborhoods in city centers, like Chinatown, Koreatown, or Little India. Over the years, they have slowly migrated elsewhere. “The community has become increasingly suburbanized and is no longer concentrated in ethnic areas,” Wong says. “So they may not be connected with traditional civil rights and ethnic enclave organizations.” An education campaign for 2020 census must reach further — to churches, schools, test prep centers, and community colleges.

Language barriers pose another issue, particularly because there is significant linguistic diversity in the AANHPI community. What’s more, AANHPIs, along with Hispanics, have the highest rates of limited English proficiency. Which means some 35% of Asian Americans speak English “less than very well.”

AANHPI organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice are developing an online resource center, with webinars, blogs, and, in the near future, fact sheets in 23 Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander languages and a census podcast series to assist members of the community in completing the census next year. The good news is that after the DOJ confirmed that the census would not have a citizenship question, AANHPI attitudes toward the census seemed to start shifting. “Now that the question is removed, we see a renewed energy to help get out the count in our communities,” Minnis says. “And the more we tell people about the benefits of participating in the census, the more we see positive sentiments from our community about participating.”

Journalist, critic & columnist at ZORA. Essay collection SOUTHBOUND (UGA Press) & debut novel THE PARTED EARTH (Hub City Press), spring ’21.

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