February 4, 2020
Strengthening Southeast Asian American Communities Through the 2020 Census
By: Elaine Sanchez Wilson

According to the 2010 Census, I probably don’t count.

I say *probably* because I never received a census questionnaire, and it never occurred to me at the time that the decennial census was even taking place. I lived in a community where more than 80 percent of residents filled out a self-response form — I just wasn’t one of them.

A decade ago, I was a 20-something living in a small but charming guesthouse on a quiet street that was very much tucked away from the surrounding busy Los Angeles scene. My then-boyfriend/now-husband and I rented directly from the main house’s owners. Our former landlords may have responded and included us as part of their household since we were technically living on their property (and I’m planning on asking them once I finish writing this blog post—they were our favorite landlords ever, and we still keep in touch!). But 1. I think it is doubtful that they would have included their renters as part of their household and 2. the main point is that despite our limited barriers for participation (living in a high response area, speaking English as a first language, etc), we didn’t find it important enough to confirm one way or the other. The 2010 Census just wasn’t on our radar.

During the 2010 Census, more than 650,000 Southeast Asian Americans (SEAA) – including Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian ethnic subgroups and communities – were found to live in areas of the United States that had low census response rates. This reflects nearly 23% of the Southeast Asian American population.

Additionally, limited-English proficiency continues to be a challenge for many SEAAs to census participation. The 2011-2015 American Community Survey reveals that roughly 38.3% of Cambodian, 36.7% of Hmong, 34.5% of Lao, and 48.6% of Vietnamese households speak English less than “very well,” compared to 8.6% of total US households. This means that these community members may be vulnerable to an undercount, resulting in loss of money that could have gone to their communities for important programs, like fixing roads, increased access to healthcare, medical translators, more affordable housing options, and more money to schools, including ESOL classes and access to free or reduced-cost lunches.

Supporting census participation among SEAA older adults

Almost 14% of all Southeast Asian Americans in the United States are age 55 or older, with the largest population in the Vietnamese community at 19.4% and the lowest in the Hmong community at just 7%.

While SEAAs as a community are generally younger compared to the average U.S. population, SEAA elders deal with a unique set of barriers to being counted, such as:

  • Limited English proficiency
  • Limited technological proficiency
  • Low income or live in poverty
  • Low educational attainment
  • Live in large household

If you do not have access to the internet, you can still participate in the census via the phone or filling out a paper form. You can also access the census at a public library or other community center with computers and internet access to the public. While all households may not receive this paper form in the first mailing, all households who have not responded to the questionnaire by the week of April 16-18 can expect a hard copy of the survey in the mail. From May to July, census takers will come around to every neighborhood to gather responses from households that have not yet responded by phone, mail, or online.

The Internet self-response form and census questionnaire assistance phone line are available in 12 non-English languages, including Vietnamese. The Census Bureau is also providing language glossaries, language identification cards, and language guides in 59 non-English languages, including Hmong, Khmer, Laotian, and Vietnamese. Video guides for how to respond to each Census question are coming soon. Each language has its own unique Census support website.

Protecting the personal data of immigrant communities

The U.S. Constitution explicitly states that the census is intended to count every person living in the United States, both citizens and non-citizens alike. Because the Southeast Asian American community comprises the largest resettlement of refugees in the history of the United States, many live in mixed-status families and households.

The Census will ask basic questions about each person who lives in a household, such as age, name, race, and ethnicity, but it will not ask about immigration status or whether someone is a U.S. citizen.

Remember that census responses are totally confidential and protected by extremely strong laws:

  • The Census Bureau is not allowed to share individual responses with anyone, including immigration enforcement and other government agencies.
  • The Census Bureau cannot use your census response for any purpose other than statistical analysis.
  • A violation of these laws can result in up to $250,000 in penalties and/or up to 5 years in prison

Helping our communities get counted

Together with our community-based partners across the country, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) aims to increase census education and encourage census participation among SEAA communities that have been historically harder to reach and harder to count. In 2019, SEARAC released a series of in-language fact sheets about the importance of the census to Southeast Asian American communities, with answers to frequently-asked questions. These fact sheets are available in Cambodian, English, Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and Iu-Mien. Click here to download and share. Additionally, we launched our census microsite last month – a hub for data, resources, social media shareable and FAQs targeted specifically to the SEAA community.

In my role at SEARAC, I see and hear and think about this year’s census on the daily. But my experience 10 years ago reminds me that it is easy not to get counted. If you are reading this post, tell a loved one or a friend — especially those who are not part of the social justice and advocacy space — about the 2020 Census. Together, we can help make sure our communities are counted.




The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.