Census problems for immigrants

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Census workers are going door to door now. Their goal is to visit the 48 million households that did not mail back their forms. One neighborbood on the census-takers' itinerary is a New York community home to many Russian immigrants. And language barriers and a mistrust of government are keeping many of them from participating in the census. Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska has our story.

MARCO WERMAN: In the U.S. census workers are going door to door now. Their goal is to visit the 48 million households that did not mail back their forms. One neighborhood on the Census takers' itinerary is Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York. The community is home to many Russian speaking immigrants and language barriers and a mistrust of government are keeping many of them from participating in the Census. Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska prepared our story.

EWA KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: It's a busy Saturday morning on Brighton Beach Avenue. This area is known at Little Odessa. People come here to shop and Russian is heard everywhere. Census workers and community activists have set up a table on the sidewalk. They hand out hats and pens with the Census logo. They are hoping the response rate in the neighborhood will be better than it was ten years ago, but they face persistent challenges. For one, some Russian speaking immigrants still don't have a lot of confidence in civic participation.

VALERIY SAVINKIN: People do not believe that they can influence the situation. Their voice matters. It's based on their experience.

KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: Valeriy Savinkin is a U.S. Census Bureau partnership specialist and liaison to the Russian speaking community.

SAVINKIN: Because you know, in the Russian community we have many, many elderly people. And they had their experience it the Soviet Union. For their whole life they tried to stay aside from the political activity to save their selves.

KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: Just off the Brighton Beach boardwalk overlooking the Atlantic Ocean some older men are playing chess. One of them is Sam Vitebsky. He came from Moscow 16 years ago. He is 58 and on disability. He refuses to fill out the Census form because he doesn't see how it can help his community.

SAM VITEBSKY: I don't understand. Everybody said it will bring billion of money to New York. Why? Why? Explain me? Explain to me no. Crazy.

KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: It's these kinds of questions and suspicions that community leaders have been trying to overcome. Two years ago they formed a Complete Count Committee for Russian American New Yorkers. Gene Borsh is the chair.

GENE BORSH: We realized that this ambitious goal can be fulfilled only if the entire community will be working on every single level. We're talking about businesses, professional offices like medical offices; of course probably one of the biggest input came from local media.

KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: A local radio stations airs Census ads in Russian every hour. Recently New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called in to make a special Census pitch.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: And if everybody gets counted we have more money for schools and health care and housing and other essential services. But if we miss anybody, anybody we miss costs us roughly $33,000.00 over the next ten years.

KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: He went on to reassure immigrants that the Census Bureau doesn't share personal information with other government agencies. That's especially important to undocumented immigrants. Local leaders have made another argument. They say filling out the Census could help the undocumented prove residence if Congress passes immigration reform. But it's not just fears; there is also the language barrier. Roxana Nagorskaya came from Ukraine 15 years ago with she was 66. And like many older immigrants here, she speaks very little English. This year, for the first time, Census questionnaires are available in Russian. But they didn't come in the mail, you had to call to request them or get them at a Census Assistance site. She filled out her questionnaire with help from a Russian language newspaper that printed a translation. By mailing in her form, she hopes that her neighborhood will benefit and that medical care she relies on will be funded too. Gene Borsh says community leaders like him are stressing that Russian speaking immigrants can have a say in affecting policy.

BORSH: Unlike it was in former Soviet Union, it was impossible. Here its' up to you.

KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: For The World, I'm Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska, Brooklyn, New York.

WERMAN: Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska reports for Feet in Two Worlds. It's a project that brings the work of immigrant journalists to public radio.