U.S. Census Director meets with Lancaster County refugee and immigrant agencies

March 22, 2024, 9 a.m. ·

U.S. Census Team meets with Lincoln refugee agencies
The U.S. Census Director Robert Santos met with refugee and immigrant support agencies Tuesday, March 29, 2024 to talk about 2030 census strategies. "You deserve a continuous relationship with us," Santos said about refugee communities and the U.S. Census team. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

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The new U.S. Census Director Robert Santos met with refugee and immigrant support organizations in Lincoln and Lancaster County to learn what worked for them in the past when gathering census data, and what challenges they saw, as part of his 2024 plan.

Lincoln was the number one city/municipality with more than 250,000 people with the highest self-response rate in the country for the mid-way point of the 2020 census. For final counts, Nebraska ranked number four in the country with highest self-response rates.

Attendees from at least 25 agencies met with Santos, including Andrew Thierolf, who worked for the Lincoln/Lancaster County Complete Count Committee in 2020. Thierolf said funding was the answer to their high success rate. He said the committee received $40,000 in funding from the city and the county, which they used for advertising, partnerships and other outreach efforts.

“We tried to target those in the census tracts where historically, we had the lower response rates,” Thierolf said. “So beyond, obviously, the work of all the different organizations we worked with, I think having some amount of funding was really critically important for us.”

Other members of the 2020 Complete Count Committee in Lincoln/Lancaster County noted other states in the Midwest followed some of Nebraska’s examples in reaching underrepresented communities.

Former coordinator for the U.S. Census Bureau-Denver, Blanca Ramirez-Salazar, covered Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and the Rio Grande Valley Texas region. She said when building partnership teams throughout the country, all coordinators implemented different strategies with different partners, and there was a strong team in Lincoln and Nebraska.

"Some of the ideas and the strategies that we were using here, were best practices, and we were sharing those with other areas and that was being replicated,” Ramirez-Salazar said. She is currently the community relations coordinator with Bryan Health. She used her relationships and connections to help make these meetings happen.

Santos met with the Lincoln refugee support organizations, as well as many Latino and Black organizations in Omaha, to understand how the census can do better in reaching communities of color. Santos, the 26th U.S. Census director, is the first Latino person to serve in the role.

“We need to do better. But we can't do better unless it's with you [refugee and immigrant support agencies/community organizations]. We recognize that the people that we need to know the most, the people that need help the most, end up being the people we measure the least accurately,” he said.

Santos also met with Nebraska Broadband, the Nebraska Library Commission and Nebraska Extension.

U.S. Census Director Robert Santos
U.S. Census Director Robert Santos spoke with immigrant and refugee support agencies on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Attendees brought up questions including how multiracial people are represented in the census and best practices for reaching underrepresented communities. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

2020 Census results show Black and/or African American, American Indian and/or Alaska Native, Hispanic and/or Latino and other races were undercounted, along with residents aged 17 and under. Meanwhile, it noted the non-Hispanic white population was overcounted, along with the Asian population.

"We recognize that after the [COVID-19] pandemic, we needed to continue our relationship with all of you. So as a priority, we are engaging with the public. We've been all over the U.S. and now we're in Lincoln, Nebraska," Santos said. "Our mission is to make sure that you understand how much we value communities, we value your participation, what you did in the 2020 census, and want you to recognize that we know that we cannot complete our mission without you."

Several attendees brought up that some of their clients and people they serve are confused by the census’ limited options for racial/ethnic makeup. For instance, Hispanic/Latino is separate from race. Since some people solely identify by their ethnicity, attendees said those people sometimes give up on answering the census questions.

Santos clarified the U.S. Census team has addressed that issue by offering a fill-in-the-blank option. This may be helpful for Nebraskans in the 2030 census, as the state continues to grow in its multicultural and multiracial diversity. Nebraskans who identify as two or more races grew by nearly 265% from 2010 to 2020.