The U.S. Census Bureau Census 2020 logo

With one week to go before the U.S. Census deadline, Oregon is closer to a full count than most states - but advocates remain concerned about some people being left out. As of Sept. 22, the the Census Bureau reports it’s counted 97.7% of Oregonians.

That rate puts Oregon 18th among U.S. states for Census response rate, higher than the national average of 96.2%. The state’s relatively high rate will put it in a better position to secure federal funding and possibly an additional Congressional seat.

Local community groups credit the state’s high response rate to aggressive outreach efforts despite the pandemic.

A coalition of groups including Salem-based Causa, an immigrant rights organization, and Woodburn-based PCUN, Oregon’s farmworkers union, joined We Count Oregon in 2019, a campaign backed by millions in state and private funding to reach "hard to count" Oregonians for the 2020 Census.

United Way of the Columbia Willamette coordinated fundraising for the state's Census equity efforts, noting the importance of outreach to tribal members, renters, rural Oregonians and immigrants for an accurate Census count.

"Weak census participation could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars for services Oregonians depend on," United Way said in an announcement.

We Count Oregon groups involved used their community connections to make sure harder-to-reach people, including immigrants, people of color, renters and non-English speakers understood the importance of the Census and responded.

The 2020 Census is the first time Census responses have been primarily collected online, with paper forms mailed only for those who didn’t respond. That meant extra work to ensure rural Oregonians, those without reliable internet access and people who primarily use their phones to get online got counted.

“Trying to do it on your mobile phone, it’s really easy to miss marking a question,” said Marchel Hirschfield, political director for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, a Portland-based organization that's part of the We Count Oregon campaign.

Enrique Ruiz, field and data manager for PCUN, said they reached 16,000 rural Oregonians by phone as part of the campaign after the pandemic forced them to cancel planned in-person outreach efforts. Those conversations, held over the phone in English and Spanish, didn’t just urge people to fill out the Census. Organizers explained that response rates determine political representation and federal funding for dozens of other programs.

“There’s a relationship component to it, more than just a campaigning side to it,” Ruiz said.

But organizers said their efforts were challenged by confusion over deadlines, understaffing at the Census Bureau and the Covid pandemic.

Because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau announced in April it would delay field work to follow up with people who hadn’t filled out the Census, with an Oct. 31 end to the count.

In July, the Bureau shortened the deadline to Sept. 30, leaving some people confused about how long they had to respond.

“There’s a lot of misinformation that is out there,” said Hirschfield.

Hirschfield said it’s been difficult to convey accurate information when families are often already overwhelmed with information about the pandemic, ongoing racial justice and Black Lives Matter protests as well as shifts in back-to-school plans over the summer.

“There’s so much going on that that information gets buried so quickly,” she said.

The Census Bureau has also been short-staffed, she said, with some people reporting waiting on hold for 45 minutes or longer while trying to respond to the Census questionnaire over the phone.

But she said they were able to reach people who might otherwise have gone uncounted: Hmong residents in Salem, an ethnic minority from Vietnam who gathered for a Census outreach event at Yoshikai Elementary School early this year.

“There were many elders there that only spoke Hmong and it was the first time they’d ever heard about the Census. Many parents had no idea what the Census funded. They had no idea what Census data was used for,” she said.

Among Latino and immigrant Oregonians, fear of immigration enforcement can lead to misgivings about responding to the Census, organizers said.

Fabian Hidalgo Guerrero, Census equity manager for Causa, said their organization has fielded many questions from people wanting to know if the Census will ask about their citizenship. Though the Trump administration proposed adding a citizenship question, they reserved course last summer after the Supreme Court blocked the effort.

Still, Ruiz said the fear of disclosing citizenship extends beyond undocumented immigrants. His mother, for example, received citizenship as part of a sweeping 1986 immigration reform bill that offered amnesty to many immigrants who had been in the country illegally.

“She’s still afraid that somehow someone’s going to come and revoke her citizenship. That fear is still in our communities of the government using this information to pinpoint where our undocumented folks are and just start issuing raids,” Ruiz said.

Hidalgo Guerrero said Causa has shifted its outreach work online, holding twice-weekly live events to present about the importance of the Census and answer questions in Spanish. He said he’s most worried about reaching those without reliable Internet, which include older and more rural Oregonians.

“Those are the people we're losing, the people we would have talked to in person,” he said.

Oregonians who haven’t yet responded to the Census can still do so online, by mail or over the phone by calling 844-330-2020 through Sept. 30. More information is available on the Census Bureau website.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.