Two Queens neighborhoods stand out as having a far lower rate of Census returns than the borough’s overall rate of 54.4 percent, as of Wednesday.
In Corona and North Corona, 15 Census tracts still had a response rate between 30 and 40 percent.
In the Richmond Hill, South Richmond Hill and Ozone Park nexus, 12 Census tracts had that same response range.
Parallels run through the socioeconomic profile of these two neighborhoods. Both are working-class areas, with a large portion of foreign-born residents. Corona is predominantly Latino. The greater Richmond Hill area contains large South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities.
Though the coronavirus has led to an unprecedentedly difficult Census season, the two Queens problem areas are not new. Both neighborhoods have historically been undercounted — a result that is widely thought to be caused by language gaps, a digital divide and a lack of outreach to immigrants.
But this year there’s another variable thrown in the cocktail of Census obstacles in immigrant communities: heightened government distrust.
Even though the Supreme Court blocked President Trump’s contentious executive order mandating a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, community groups and legislators on the ground both point out that there’s a lingering level of fear especially among undocumented immigrants.
“Even though the citizenship question isn’t on there, there’s still fear that this information can find its way into immigration customs, or homeland security,” said Jagga Singh, a Richmond Hill-based organizer with South Asian and Indo-Caribbean advocacy group Chhaya CDC.
In Corona, state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-East Elmhurst) has tried to make the case for why its immigrant population desperately needs the infrastructure spending that will come from a full count. The neighborhood’s status as the COVID “epicenter of the epicenter” serves as a reminder of its dearth of hospitals and other lacking infrastructure.
She echoed the sentiment that it was fear of the federal government that is partly driving resistance to the Census, and accordingly her staff has made its biggest strides reaching undocumented residents in one-on-one sessions. One way they accomplish those personal interactions is to wait in line at food distribution sites.
In South Queens, where informal housing arrangements like basement apartments and room shares are common, homeowners and tenants’ government skepticism is focused more on city agencies.
A rumor that Singh has had to debunk involves the belief that the Department of Buildings conducts targeted raids on the neighborhoods’ communities.
“[DOB] doesn’t indiscriminately do raids for places they’re not getting 311 complaints from,” Singh said, qualifying that upticks of DOB inspections do happen in the area, but often it’s because of a community board meeting or a news article, which prompts a rash of complaints from neighbors.
Singh, along with Farzana Linda, Chhaya CDC’s Census director, said that they have partnered with trusted neighborhood people and institutions. Recently they have been visiting Sikh temples, where they have great success convincing residents to fill the Census out, but their reach is limited.
“For us, it’s just like, we have limited capacity. We’re just looking to build kind of that manpower to continue to increase that count from week to week,” said Linda. “It’s really a numbers game, right? It’s like how many people in this given amount of time where they happen to be can we get to fill it out?”
Linda has actually done the math. She said that in order for there to be a 1 percent increase in Richmond Hill, Chhaya’s five-person team would have to access at least 600 people each week.
But residents should not assume, Linda said, that Ramos, Chhaya or a myriad of other community organizations can successfully change the tide in Corona and Richmond Hill.
“This is a collective effort,” she added. “We really want a big community effort in making sure that they’re telling their parents, are telling their family — they’re not keeping it to themselves.”