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Although fear of deportation within migrant worker communities played a role in past census undercounts and will certainly be a big factor again in 2010, farm worker advocates say their primary concern is that migrant workers may never even get an opportunity to fill out the census form.
Officials from the U.S. Census Bureau gathered to hear from community advocates in Sacramento on January 19, in an effort to improve their outreach to migrant and seasonal farm workers in California, as they prepare for the 2010 decennial census. The bureau hopes to avoid a repeat of what some here described as a “mega undercount” of farm workers in 2000, the last time the census was conducted.
“In 2000, of those farm workers who were not counted on the census, 80 percent were missed because their whole household was missed,” said Ed Kissam, a research consultant for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the organization that sponsored the event. “They never even received a questionnaire.”
Non-traditional living arrangements, overcrowded housing, isolation and the transient nature of much farm work, make migrant communities especially susceptible to an undercount.
“We have migrant farm workers who come in from other areas and work for a short period of time, so finding them is hard,” said Alma Alvarez, a CRLA community worker from Fresno. “We need to be aware of the farming seasons -– when they are going to be here, and when they are going to be gone.”
Beginning in March, the bureau will mail out the census questionnaire to homes across the country, based on a nationwide database of mailing addresses.
The address-based system, said Alvarez, will fail to reach farm workers and their families who live in labor camps located on private farms, or other types of non-traditional and temporary housing structures that have no formal mailing address.
“We have dairy workers, for example, who are very isolated,” said Alvarez. “Usually the only address listed is that of the owner, and behind the main house are the smaller homes where the farm workers actually live, and they don’t have a mailing address.”
Kissam has published estimates of a 37.9 percent undercount of farm workers in some of the hardest-to-count towns in the central valley, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars in federal programs for some of the most cash-starved rural communities in California.
The decennial Census is used to allocate more than $400 billion per year in federal funding to communities for programs ranging from health care to education, public housing, food assistance, transportation and infrastructure.
One way to increase the count of migrant workers, say advocates, is for census enumerators to reach them at churches, weekend flea markets, dances and local sporting events like soccer matches and rodeos.
Yet such efforts, said Alvarez, may not reach those who are in the United Sates on temporary guest-worker visas, known as H2 visas.
The visas are issued by the state Employment Development Department (EDD) to growers who can show they do not have enough local workers to help with their harvest. If their application is approved, growers can then recruit workers from Mexico or other countries and bring them across the border legally as temporary laborers.
The problem, said Alvarez, is that housing for H2 workers is often “fenced in” on private farm property, making them perhaps the least accessible population of migrant workers, and the group most likely to be missed by the census.
“These workers are kept most of the time in what we would know as concentration camps,” said Alvarez. “They are like fairgrounds with tents, or like bunkers where you have at times 16 people in one room, sleeping in army cots, about eight inches between each bed.”
H2 workers, said Alvarez, do not have the freedom to come and go from the farm as they please, which will be an additional barrier to census enumerators.
“The only time they get to go out anywhere is on payday, and the employer buses them to one specific location -– a tiendita [market], or one bank where they can cash their check. They have about an hour to do their shopping, and then a bus ride back.”
“So the challenge is not only convincing workers to be counted, but convincing growers to allow access to enumerators,” said Alvarez.
Ultimately, that challenge will rest on the shoulders of the Census Bureau. Yet securing the cooperation of some growers in the central valley may prove difficult.
“We don’t want to allow anyone on our farms,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League (NFL) in Fresno, who was reached by telephone.
Cunha said trust between farmers and the federal government has eroded over the last 20 years in part due to regulations, including those meant to improve living conditions for migrant workers which, he said, have hurt the business side of the farming industry.
“[Farm worker housing] is always made out to be worse than where they lived before,” he said. “But that is unfounded.”
On the contrary, said Cunha, allowing census enumerators to enter private farm property could damage the relationship between growers and workers, which he described as positive.
“You have a strong bond between the worker and farmer today,” he said. Providing information about workers to the government, he said, “would be an issue of the farmer betraying the worker, losing trust and respect.”
Cunha said the Census Bureau must prove to growers that they can be trusted to not share any information with other government agencies, which could then be used against them in audits. Only then, said Cunha, would he consider supporting the count.
“There might be some housing issues,” said Alvarez, “and they might be afraid that if the federal government comes in and looks at it, they might be reported.” Which is why, she said, the bureau and community workers will have an important job to do in convincing the growers that all they are interested in is conducting a complete census count.
According to official Census Bureau policy, all census data is confidential, and any breach will result in a $250,000 fine and a five-year jail sentence for the guilty party.
Other potential barriers to farm worker enumeration discussed in Sacramento include long working hours in the fields, including nighttime harvesting, both of which could mean Census workers would miss them.
Language is also a concern.
“There has been a lot of census promotion in Spanish, but we also need to make an effort to include different communities, like the Purepecha, Mixteco and Zapoteco” said Antonio Flores, a CRLA worker from Oxnard, referring to the growing community of indigenous migrant workers in the central valley.
“If we don’t get counted, it’s like we don’t even exist,” said Flores. “This is the moment we should be bringing the message that we are here, and we need this help.”
This article first appeared on New America Media’s website.