At 4.7 percent of the foreign-born population, African immigrants constitute only a small segment of the immigrant community in Chicago. Local organizations, however, say it’s essential that each and every one of them is counted in the 2020 census.
Advocates say that an accurate census count of African immigrants in the city will help the community receive social services, increase its visibility and strengthen its collective voice.
Though many immigrant communities are at risk of being missed by the census, the stakes are particularly high for recent African immigrants, according to Nancy Asirifi-Otchere, executive director of the United African Organization.
In recent years, newly arriving African immigrants in Chicago are asylum seekers who’ve made months-long trips traveling through “different countries, crossing through deserts, rivers, seeing so many dead bodies,” said Asirifi-Otchere. Their journeys differ from the African refugees who have traditionally resettled on the city’s North Side, close to available refugee and immigrant services.
Representatives from four local organizations that work with African immigrants say that the more recent arrivals require services — like schools, clinics and mental health resources — that can respond to their unique cultural and language needs. Each decennial census helps determine the allocation of federal funds for such social services.
In fiscal year 2016, $35 billion in federal funding was directed to Illinois based on 2010 census data, according to an analysis by the Chicago Urban League. Those dollars supported programs like Medicaid, student loans, food assistance benefits and highway construction.
To ensure an accurate count of African immigrants in Chicago, advocates will face a number of challenges. Primary amongst them is the federal administration itself. Advocates said that President Trump’s policies and rhetoric have intensified suspicions amongst immigrant communities throughout the country. Many immigrants fear sharing personal information with any federal agency, including the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We are anxious right now and feel so vulnerable and so it is tough, a tough time, and we have to figure out the key ways in which we can still get people to participate in the census,” said Asirifi-Otchere.
To combat this fear, local African organizations are planning robust education and outreach campaigns to educate immigrants about the census and the protections in place to ensure the confidentiality of census data. For instance, it is illegal for any census worker to share an individual’s information with any government agency.
They said this is necessary because few African immigrants are familiar with the census.
“They’re trying to make ends meet on a daily basis because whatever money that they are getting from employment is not enough,” said Patrick Augustin at the PanAfrican Association. “They don’t even have time for [the news] because they are trying to survive.”
Advocates said organizations that have developed trust with African immigrants are the best positioned to provide workshops and education materials specially tailored to address both their busy lives and their suspicions of immigration officials.
Immigrants have been advised not to open their doors for anyone they don’t know, for fear that the visitors could be plainclothes immigration officers. “I worry about individuals in the refugee and immigrant communities not opening the doors to [census workers] because that's what we instruct them to do,” said Jims Porter at Refugee One.
Before census workers go knocking on doors, the U.S. Census Bureau will send at least four reminders by mail advising community members to fill out the census forms online. It will be crucial, as Asirifi-Otchere explained, that trusted community leaders intervene at this point and encourage residents to fill out the online form as soon as possible. This will help prevent the need for census workers to visit people’s homes.
Some organizations, like Refugee One, will also offer clinic hours throughout the day when people can come in and complete the online form.
Language access, a daily challenge for most African immigrants, is another obstacle to increasing participation in the census, advocates said.
While many African immigrants migrate from English-speaking countries, not enough resources are available for the thousands who come from French-speaking countries, Asirifi-Otchere said. “I was just looking at an email that I received from the state with resources for [immigrants] ... translated into languages: Russian, Polish, Spanish, Hindi, but there’s no African language. Why is that so?”
The census will provide online census materials in French. Organizations hope that this will help increase participation and, in the future, help increase the number of resources available in French or Swahili for African immigrants.
“I think if [African immigrants] are counted then state agencies like the [Illinois] Department of Human Services would need to [hire] someone who spoke French … and was from West Africa,” said Lawrence Benito, CEO of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Increasing census participation will also help make African communities more visible in Chicago, something that is currently difficult because the community is widely dispersed throughout the city. Some African immigrants are concentrated on the South Side of Chicago, but — unlike Mexican and Chinese communities — there’s no city neighborhood known for its presence of African immigrants.
Chicago’s African immigrant population has been growing steadily in the last few years, reflecting a nationwide trend. In Chicago, the foreign-born African community grew by more than 50 percent between 2005 and 2017. The largest groups represented are from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana. But others from places like Cameroon, the Congo, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Madagascar have settled in Chicago in recent years, according to Asirifi-Otchere of the United African Organization,
Despite the challenges, advocates said the benefits of participating in the census are clear.
“Seeing ourselves in terms of numbers would really help us to begin to rethink who we are in this society and what we can do together as a community,” says Asirifi-Otchere.
Morgan Lee contributed to this story.
This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Woodlawn. Learn more and get involved at www.citybureau.org.