Hispanics, who make up roughly 15 percent of the nation's population, still tend to lag behind other racial groups when it comes to mailing in census forms. But the latest survey suggests the numbers may be improving and that, contrary to conventional notions, the hardest-to-reach may not be fearful immigrants but rather disenchanted Hispanics born in the U.S.
The findings come as 52 percent of people the U.S. have sent in their census forms leading into the April 1 "Census Day" on Thursday. Census Bureau director Robert Groves this week is urging several regions to step up their response. They include five states with higher shares of minority or indigenous populations that ranked at the bottom: Alaska, New Mexico, Louisiana, New York and Texas, each with participation rates of 41-46 percent.
"We are ignoring the native-born Latino population," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, noting that a similar pattern is seen in Hispanic voting. "There is a sense of optimism that immigrants bring to this country, while people who have been here for generations have a certain sense of being beaten down and disengaged, whether by the cycle of poverty, or unemployment, or discrimination."
"So that becomes our hardest challenge -- motivating the native-born to engage in U.S. society," he said.
Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, attributed immigrants' positive views of the census partly to aggressive outreach by advocacy groups and Spanish-language media including Univision. The Census Bureau, which mailed out Spanish-English bilingual forms for the first time this year, also spent more than $25 million in advertising targeted primarily at the Hispanic community.
"Spanish speakers and the foreign-born were more likely to receive pro-census messages, which were more likely to influence whether they have a positive view," Lopez said.
Overall, about 85 percent of Hispanics say they already have sent in their census form or definitely will do so, up from 65 percent in early March. But among immigrants, the rate increases to 91 percent, compared to 78 percent for U.S.-born Hispanics. In 2000, the mail participation rate among Hispanics was roughly 69 percent.
There were similar disparities when Hispanics were asked about the role of the census.
About 80 percent of foreign-born Hispanics said they believe the census is good for their community, often citing the principle that every person should be counted, or that it helps with school funding. But among U.S.-born Hispanics, that number drops to 57 percent.
Hispanic immigrants also were more likely to believe the Census Bureau's promise that it won't share data with other federal agencies, including law enforcement, at 80 percent compared to 66 percent for U.S.-born Latinos.
The differences were evident even though Hispanic immigrants were more than twice as likely to have seen or heard something discouraging them from participating, such as the recent boycott call by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders. Still, only about 16 percent of Hispanics overall reported hearing such messages.
This week, the Census Bureau will send out replacement forms to areas of the U.S. that traditionally have lower response rates. It also will decide whether and how to spend up to $7 million of its reserve fund on additional census advertising for areas with particularly low participation. So far, the bureau has spent a total of $133 million on ads.
The Census Bureau will continue to accept mailed-in forms through most of April and is striving to match, if not surpass, mail participation rates in 2000 of 72 percent. The bureau estimates that for every percentage point increase in the mail participation rate, the government saves about $85 million in follow-up costs.
From May until July, it will send census-takers to each home that doesn't reply by mail, which also can sometimes lead to more inaccurate responses. The population count, conducted every 10 years, is used to distribute U.S. House seats and more than $400 billion in federal aid.
The study was conducted for the Pew Hispanic Center by SSRS/ICR, an independent research company, which interviewed 1,003 Hispanic adults by cell or home phone from March 16-25.