Caribbean immigrants finally get to say where they’re from in Census. They aren’t alone

Ethnic ancestry has been in the Canadian census for a long time:

When the U.S. Census rolls out on March 12, Caribbean immigrants like Felicia Persaud will get to do something many have wanted to do ever since they filled out their first questionnaire: identify themselves beyond race.

The 2020 Census will mark two firsts: people will be able to primarily fill out online, and will be able to note their ethnic identity or nation of origin while still choosing their race.

“We can actually begin to tell our story in some numbers, which we are not able to do right now, at all. It’s just sort of a guesstimate,” said Persaud, a Plantation resident and Caribbean activist who in 2008 launched CaribID 2010, a lobbying effort to get Congress to add a special Caribbean or West Indian category on the census.

Caribbean immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica and elsewhere have long argued that their communities — often lumped in with African Americans — were under-counted and much more diverse than what was being reflected in the Census. The community’s inability to provide a true count has affected everything from the power of its vote, to organizations’ and businesses’ ability to get sponsorship, advertising or contracts from corporations, Caribbean nationals have noted over the years.

“They dismiss you and say, ‘You’re too small; you’re not part of the mainstream; we can’t tell your numbers,’ “ said Persaud, speaking from personal experience as a Guyanese-born media entrepreneur and founder of Invest Caribbean Now, which connects investors with opportunities in the region. “It leaves us completely disrespected; completely ignored and dismissed.

“You feel it all of the time. You see it in this presidential debate and in every election cycle,” she added. “You never hear anything about the Caribbean voter. You hear consistently about the black voter. But you never hear anything about us at all until [the candidates] come to Florida and decide they need to have these Caribbean people come and join us.”

South Florida is home to one of the fastest growing Caribbean-American populations in the United States. The non-Hispanic Caribbean population is estimated at 861,560 in Miami-Dade County, with Haitians leading the growth followed by Jamaicans, according to the 2017 American Community Survey, the questionnaire run by the U.S. Census Bureau. In Broward County, the estimate is 265,278, with Jamaicans slightly ahead of Haitians, 86,845 to 80,201, respectively.

Further north in Palm Beach County, the Caribbean community’s 150,343 nationals are mostly from Haiti, with 70,197, followed by Jamaicans at 24,212.

“I am hoping that Caribbean nationals will identify themselves,” said Broward County Mayor Dale Holness, the first Jamaican-American to hold the position. “The significance is that we will be counted and recognized as a force that’s here and our numbers will show what we do. It will benefit us to the extent that entities looking to see who we are and what we are about, will be able to then use those numbers to recognize the contributions we’re making to build this great nation.”

Though the Census Bureau first began allowing individuals to self-identify more than one race in its 2000 survey, the fight to get self-identification on ethnicity, similar to what Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans have been able to do since the 1970 Census, did not come easy.

Throughout their push, Caribbean activists were met with angst and resistance, especially from African Americans. Vocal black activists argued that a separate non-Hispanic Caribbean category would dilute the black community’s numbers and the amount of federal funds they may be entitled to based on Census data, which is collected every 10 years.

“That has not really been the case because Caribbean nationals are not just black,” Persaud said. “There are a whole lot of cultural and mix up that goes on there and the only thing that brings us together is when we say, ‘We are from the Caribbean,’ whether you’re from Haiti, or Guyana or Jamaica.“

The new write-in question, number 9 on the 2020 Census form, which is opened to everyone, is a compromise and was made administratively by the Census Bureau.

“There were a whole lot of problems we had to face in this lobbying effort,” Persaud said. “So we decided we were going to settle for this, and we would accept this. And so this form is coded to read those ancestries or nationalities that are written in there.

“We were just happy to be able to get something to start, especially in this administration, because we weren’t sure it was even going to happen even though the national [Census] committee had approved the form in 2018.”

From concerns about the digital roll-out to questions about a potential under-count, this year’s constitutionally mandated count has not been immune from controversy.

Lawsuits erupted last year when the Trump administration proposed asking, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” on the survey. Community leaders and immigration activists from around the United States argued that allowing the question would lead to an inaccurate count.

In June 2019, the Supreme Court decided not to allow the citizenship question on the form, a decision that was consistent with the recommendations of every U.S. secretary of commerce dating back to 1950.

Now with the Census just days away — households will begin receiving a card on March 12 inviting them to go online or to call a number with 13 languages available to fill out the form — activists and organizations are pushing people to “stand up and be counted.”

“It’s intense this year and our push is to get people to complete the Census. We are not going to be picky,” said Gepsie Metellus, the executive director of Sant La Neighborhood Center, which provides social services to the Haitian-American community in Miami. “Given the president’s comments and statements, policies and tactics, what we are simply focused on is getting people to count and to count everyone in their household.”

Still, Gepsie, an early supporter of the CaribID 2010 campaign, applauds this year’s write-in opportunity.

“It’s about ensuring that we have a decent texture of the Haitian communities throughout the United States, ensuring that bilingual education and resources are properly allocated, and having an idea how many people are likely to become citizens after they pass their five-year requirements,” she said. “All of these resources’ implications have been at the basis for our push to get people to identify themselves.”

In addition to being used to allocate an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding based on states’ population counts, Census data is used to redraw voting districts and redistribute congressional seats and votes in the Electoral College.

Households that fail to fill out their forms will receive two additional reminders. Those who still fail to respond will receive a paper form in the mail they can fill out with pen or pencil. By mid-May, volunteers will also be fanning out to collect data.

“Right now, we want people to go online. They can either do it from their smart phone, tablet or laptop,” said Andrea Robinson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Census Bureau Atlanta region. “We have governments that will also have phone banks, either at their offices or libraries. We are partnering with different civic organizations, churches and community leaders, ministers, priests, imams , rabbis, a host of people who have agreed to help us to make it as easy as possible.”

After years of being in the “other category,” when filling out the form, Persaud, who is black and Asian, said she is looking forward to for the first time also claiming her other identity. “I am Guyanese. That’s my ancestry and nationality.“

Source: Caribbean immigrants finally get to say where they’re from in Census. They aren’t alone

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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