Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
For the past two decades, experts have pushed the U.S. Census Bureau to get better at counting members of the fast-growing Hispanic population.
The nation’s second-largest immigrant group, Asians and Pacific Islanders, also has its advocates when it comes to the census. That group also has its challenges, perhaps most notably the lack of a unifying language.
Enter Salve Spensko-Edelman, the bureau’s local liaison to Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Starting today and for the next 10 months, Spensko-Edelman will host a Tuesday afternoon radio show on KLAV AM-1230 featuring voices speaking Asian and Pacific Islander languages to try to boost participation in the count next spring.
The effort reflects the federal government’s increased awareness that minority and immigrant communities tend to be undercounted in the once-a-decade census. That not only shortchanges congressional redistricting and large federally funded programs, but also grass-roots, neighborhood programs reliant on federal funding.
With Asians and Pacific Islanders, the issue takes on additional meaning because in certain parts of the country, including Southern Nevada, the population has grown larger and more diverse since the 2000 census, while community groups representing each culture have tended to lag behind. From 2000 to 2004, for example, the valley’s Asian population grew 41 percent, more than other minority populations, according to the Asian-American Justice Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.
This makes outreach in the Census Bureau more challenging, says Terry Ao, director of census and voting programs for the organization.
Spensko-Edelman is to launch her show today with guests from the Philippines and China, two of the largest Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the valley. For 30 minutes, they will alternate among Tagalog and Mandarin Chinese and English and explain the purpose of the decennial, constitutionally mandated count. They will also make subtle variations in the message, tailored to their populations. Future shows will feature additional guests.
“My strategy is to use trusted voices,” Spensko-Edelman says. “By doing that, you break down barriers.”
Those barriers include, of course, language. Immigrants who are still learning English may not fully understand the census form when it arrives in the mail this spring. Locally, nearly three of every four Asians in the valley speak a language other than English at home, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Nationally, the federal government is advertising the 2010 census in an unprecedented 28 languages in order to reach immigrants.
Another obstacle for many of those immigrants is mistrust. If they are in the country illegally or have family members in that situation, they fear the Census Bureau will share information with other government agencies.
Spensko-Edelman’s guests will have to convince their communities of the truth — the Census Bureau is prohibited by law from sharing information.
Then there is the fact that many immigrants “don’t even know what the census is,” Spensko-Edelman notes.
So every Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. until July, people such as Leizel Trinidad will try to reach their compatriots with the message. Trinidad is Filipina, like Spensko-Edelman, and notes with pride that her community is the largest locally among Asian and Pacific Islanders, which are 7.1 percent of the valley’s total population, according to a 2007 Census Bureau estimate.
She owns the Philippine Times of Southern Nevada; fellow guest Helen Hsueh is publisher and owner of the Las Vegas Daily Chinese News.
So-called ethnic media will be important in exhorting immigrant communities to participate in the census, according to New American Media, a California-based organization that hosted a round table on the subject in May.
Trinidad says Asians as a group tend to get overlooked in Southern Nevada because Hispanics have a larger population, an estimated 28 percent of the total, and get more attention. “By being accurately counted, we can have more of a voice,” Trinidad says.
She also says she needs to do a bit of cheerleading for her people, given that “we tend to try to blend in” and not get involved in civic, high-profile events. If she succeeds, “this could open doors and make us more involved in the future,” Trinidad says.
Hsueh says many valley residents of Chinese background are “afraid to participate in things from the government.”
“I need to let them know, it’s nothing bad ... it’s not a trick.”
She thinks people will grasp the idea that “we are here, we live here, this is our home, our country,” so being counted is worthwhile.
At the same time, she notes one undeniable fact about the unusual project. The valley’s Chinese community, especially those who struggle with English, may not be used to listening to local talk radio. So she can’t help but wonder: “Who will be listening?”