Pandemic complicates counting of refugees in census

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In this April 17, 2020, photo, Tareke Tesfameachel, a refugee from Eritrea who was resettled in the United States in 2012, harvests vegetables at a refugee-run community garden plot in Phoenix for the International Rescue Committee to distribute to newly arrived refugees with census materials. Advocates are concerned that the coronavirus has added another burden for refugees arriving in the U.S. They worry that the disease threatens refugee participation in the census. (AP Photo/Matt York)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The care packages, left outside closed apartment doors to curb the coronavirus, offer newly arrived refugee families a few items to ease their transition to life in the United States — canned goods, fresh produce and a short lesson in the importance of the census.

Refugee advocates would normally extend such assistance face to face, but the virus makes that impossible. Now advocacy organizations are concerned that the pandemic threatens not only the families’ health and safety but refugee participation in the national headcount, which will help determine how the government distributes some $1.5 trillion for refugees and everyone living in the areas where they settle.

To encourage refugees to take part, workers for the International Rescue Committee in suburban Phoenix include census instructions along with Swiss chard, fennel and green onions harvested from a refugee-run garden.

“The newest arrivals don’t know anything about the census. We have to educate them,” said Muktar Sheikh, program coordinator for the Somali Association of Arizona, who has worked to get the word out among local refugees.

The government-ordered lockdowns to help stop the spread of the virus have put a damper on census efforts that typically thrive on personal contact, especially in hard-to-count communities where fresh arrivals are trying to get a foothold. Because of the virus, census officials postponed field operations until June 1 and moved the deadline for finishing the count to Oct. 31.

“There is no question that the coronavirus knocked the wind out of census outreach, especially for communities that are harder to reach,” said D’Vera Cohn, a census specialist with the Pew Research Center in Washington. “But the good thing about everyone being home is that you know where to find them.”

Refugees are somewhat different than other immigrants because the government approves them for resettlement before they arrive, often after they have fled conflicts back home. They also get more help from agencies like the rescue committee, which work to help them gain self-sufficiency so they can apply for permanent residency after a year.

Kristen Aster, who helps lead the rescue committee’s census efforts, said the outbreak makes the count more important for refugees, who often rely on cash assistance and other government aid during their first months in the U.S.