Census 2010: counting the Burmese poses a particular challenge
The Census Bureau has released its latest population estimates, ahead of announcing this year's official census count, and some of the results may surprise you. As of July 2009, 317 counties, four states, and the District of Columbia were officially considered 'minority majority' areas, meaning that people of European descent are now in the minority there. The four states are Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii and--you guessed it, California. Demographers are attributing the jump to high minority birth rates, and a large influx of young immigrants and refugees.
According to the US State Department, among the half-million refugees who arrived in the US over the last decade 60,000 are from the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Many agencies, including Amnesty International, claim the ruling military junta in Burma has been committing human rights violations since the 1960s, when it overthrew the democratic government. No one knows how many of its citizens have fled, but in the last decade, more than 2,000 Burmese refugees have resettled in California. But this upswing in the Burmese immigrant community here might not get reflected in the 2010 census. Reporter Adelaide Chen has more.
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ADELAIDE CHEN: In Oakland, there’s a Burmese Mission Baptist church that’s been established only within the last decade. It has a special service to accommodate the Karen and Karenni ethnic minority groups that speak their own languages. Not all of the people who use the service are Christian, but as newcomers to the US, they come here to adapt, socialize and access social services.
After the service, families sit drinking ohn-no-kauk-swe, a traditional chicken coconut noodle soup with chilies. Pastor Aye Aye Thaw assists newcomer Me Reh in filling out a census form in English. Reh just arrived three months ago so the English capital letters that the pastor writes on his form are unfamiliar to him.
So you’re asking him to pull out his ID?
AYE AYE THAW: Yeah, because I need the house number. Because they do not know their house number. And they do not know their apartment number.
Thaw understands how counting Burmese Refugees can be difficult for a census worker. She knows the Burmese don’t use last names. She knows the people from refugee camps are not likely to have birthdates. Like in this case, the IDs of both Me Reh and his wife list theirs as January first.
See it says Jan 1 for both IDs.
AYE AYE THAW: All are like that. At first I’m surprising too but now I’m used to that.
Thaw says when they tried filling out the forms for the first time, they were all puzzled by one question: The one about their ethnic group. To say you’re "Burmese" is to say you’re a part of the dominant ethnic group back home, often associated with the military junta. And at least a third of Karennis have been displaced by the military presence in their home state. Some of which resettled here as refugees and joined Thaw’s fellowship. So, she decided to list both groups.
AYE AYE THAW: I want to make sure that’s why I want them to fill it up with Burma and then Karenni.
There are about 20 major ethnic groups within the country known as Burma. So when it comes to the census, it’s especially hard to get an accurate count.
CARL KATCHER: To be honest, there’s a lot of ethnic issues in Burma.
Carl Katcher’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Burma in the seventies:
CARL KATCHER: As far as I understand, most of the Karens, most of the ethnic groups will just be filling out their group as the particular group. Whether it be, you know—Kachin, Shan, Karen, or Karenni.
So those ethnic groups might not make it to the final count. Mary Nicely, the government liaison of the census committee for the people of Burma, says in the last census her population was undercounted, and she's concerned it could happen again.
MARY NICELY: And that’s why we’ve been working so hard to try to pull it together this time around because the only support services these people have are churches, family, and if they’re lucky they can get some sort of assistance and someone can help them.
Lorraine Lee is a nurse for San Mateo County. She’s seen a surge in the Burmese population, mostly in Daly City.
LORRAINE LEE: I’m the only public health nurse who speak the Burmese language, so most of my caseload is flooded with Burmese clients and patients. And I see there’s a lot of barriers for them, challenges, because of the language. A lot of the health care providers don’t speak the language so a lot of them obviously have trouble seeking the medical care that they need.
Lee not only speaks Burmese, she also speaks the language of the Karen minority. She says she doesn’t know how census workers will get past the language barrier when they go door-to-door. And in cases where several families live on one property, some households are likely to be overlooked.
LORRAINE LEE: I go into the home as part of my public health nursing work so I see it firsthand. And there may be two units underneath or one unit illegally done. Then the landlord’s family is going to be one counted. And the folks in the illegal units are not going to be counted.
Elsie Chan is a census outreach worker taping posters to the wall of the Jefferson Adult School in Daly City. On a regular night, there’s not one place where Burmese congregate. So census outreach workers, who speak the language, table at schools like this.
A student named Kyun Kway Ong stops at the table so he can fill out a census form. Chan tears open an envelope to take out a form.
ELSIE CHAN: He says he only stay with his wife. And then he want to fill it out now.
Ong holds the pen as Chan walks him through each question, stopping to coach him on spelling.
He’s done in about 10 minutes. Ong said he filled out a census form to help increase the Burmese count. For his ethnicity, this time he had to check “other Asian.” But in the next census, Ong hopes there could be a checkbox that says Burmese next to it.
For Crosscurrents I’m Adelaide Chen.
It's not too late to be counted in the 2010 Census. Just call the Census Bureau Call Center to find out how. You can hear instructions in English, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese throughout the week. Do you think YOUR community will be accurately reflected in the 2010 census? Let us know at 415-264-7106. That’s 415-264-7106.
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