A group of cars decked out in balloons and census posters drove through the South Chicago and East Side communities on Chicago’s Southeast Side Wednesday honking their horns to raise awareness about the census.
In some census tracts in South Chicago, just 27.4% of households have responded to the 2020 census.
“We have some of the lowest census turnout numbers in the city, and it shows — there’s a lot of resources that we need that aren’t coming into our community,” said Cinthya Rodriguez, director of organizing for Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, an immigrant workers group based in the East Side community.
Rodriguez said that the area has also been a hotbed of COVID-19 cases.
“This is an area where the racism and the economic insecurity that already existed was only exacerbated by COVID-19, and that’s made people have very different priorities than filling out the census,” she said. “But we also know that long term we need more more resources in our community, and the census is just one of those ways in which we can get that investment.”
Illinois has one of the highest census response rates in the country, but in many Chicago-area immigrant communities, those rates lag behind. A coalition of local immigrant advocacy groups held a daylong event Wednesday to help boost those numbers.
Illinois’ response rate — the percentage of households filling out the questionnaires — currently stands at 66.2%, the eighth best in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, in many immigrant communities throughout the state, those rates hover at around 30% to 40%.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) mobilized the day of action that included census caravans throughout Chicagoland, phone banking, and two virtual conferences to bookend the day.
In all, coalition members held seven caravans in communities where the census response had been lagging, according to ICIRR spokesman Brandon Lee. In addition to South Chicago and East Side, those areas included parts of the Rogers Park neighborhood on the city’s North Side, as well as suburban cities Berwyn and Joliet.
While the census will not feature a citizenship question, many immigration advocates say that the monthslong debate over the question and heavy immigration enforcement have stoked fears about participating in the census.
“We are really focusing on making sure that immigrants and refugees know that it’s not only safe to participate in the census, but it actually makes their communities stronger,” said ICIRR Census Director Maria Fitzsimmons.
She added that the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the need for a robust census count. “The pandemic is very closely related to the census,” Fitzsimmons said. “Public health is very connected to our resources, so if we don’t have the resources we need, then public health certainly suffers.”
Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya, who spoke at the morning virtual conference, said her 7th district is “the most immigrant district in the county.”
“We know that my district is the one that has the lowest response rate,” she said.
Anaya’s district includes the Little Village and Brighton Park neighborhoods. In Little Village, some census tracts have response rates as low as 26%.
Rodriguez said the day of action was initially planned for two weeks ago, but it was delayed so that it wouldn’t interfere with protests against police brutality and systemic racism. She said they “wanted to be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and not take up space that day with our census caravan.”
Lee said Wednesday’s day of action is part of Illinois Census Month, a joint effort between the state of Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, and the not-for-profit organization Forefront, which is leading census outreach efforts.
ICIRR closed out the day with a virtual concert featuring Quinto Imperio, a band from Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.
Other upcoming Census Month events include Black Census Day of Action, scheduled for June 19, otherwise known as Juneteenth, as well as an LGBTQ Census Day of Action on June 29.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.