By Inder Singh

Twenty years ago, U.S. Census Bureau counted 361,544 Indian Americans living in USA. This number is one-sixth of one percent of 226.5 million, the US population in 1980. The Indian community was predominantly comprised of those who migrated from India and adopted USA as their new homeland. Ten years later, as per the 1990 Census, the number of Indian Americans rose to 815,447, more than double the previous count. By then, the community also included a large number of those who were born and raised in the United States of America and called the U.S. their motherland.

On April 1, 2000, the US Census Bureau is going to have their decennial count, the first population count of the new millennium. The Bureau will mail Census form to 120 million households in the U.S. in the month of March and would expect two out of three households to respond on their own. The Indian American community has an edge over the general U.S. population; it is highly educated and would need no outside help to fill the Census survey form. If they maintain that edge and three out of three respond, we could again more than double our number officially.

I am emphasizing 100 percent response to the Census questionnaire. The Census is a numbers game. We can also play it by having a complete and accurate count of our community. All Indian Americans should make a sincere effort to answer the Census form and return before the deadline, April 1. Some communities, although much larger in numbers, have been using their numerical strength to their advantage. Latinos and African Americans get infinitely upset when they are not adequately represented in government, university admissions, TV or movies. They demand their fare share of the pie. Similarly, our increased number can be effectively considered as our community’s strength. We can become a force to reckon with against misrepresentation of our culture or negative presentation of our professionals in the movies and other media. Furthermore, the answers provided on the Census form will be used in many ways that could benefit our community. Based on the Census count, an estimated $180 billion in federal funds will be distributed annually for services and facilities in various communities. At this time, I am simply talking of an accurate count of Indian Americans in the United States. But during the next ten years, that count could translate into dollars flowing for services to our community. It could also mean increased number of political appointments at federal, state and city level for Indian Americans. This is truly our chance to be adequately represented in the fabric of American life.

The census in the United States has been taken every ten years since 1790. The earliest censuses were simple tallies of individuals in each household for the sole purpose of equal apportionment of House (of Representatives) seats among the states. But policymakers in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere started adding questions on the Census form to gather meaningful data about the U.S. population. The Census Bureau has constantly monitored and evaluated the changing societal needs and added new questions or dropped unnecessary ones from the survey form. In 1988, the Census Bureau wanted to eliminate various sub-groups under the group titled “Asian” on the 1990 Census form. A bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress, proposing elimination of the nine check-off boxes, Asian Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc. The Asian leaders opposed the bill and defeat of the bill became a major rallying point for all the Asian groups.

Prior to the 1980 Census, there was hardly a national body of Indian Americans to mobilize the community for any common cause. The National Federation of Indian American Associations was formed in 1980 in New York. Since then, the National Federation has held national biennial conventions and numerous regional conventions and has used these conventions as a major vehicle to mobilize and unite the Indian community that is spread all over the United States. The networking developed through all these conventions had enabled NFIA to connect with the community whenever critical issues of common concern had come up. It was this networked Indian American community; from East to West and from North to South, that played a significant role in their fight for the statuesque of the Census form. The unity among the various national Asian groups prevailed and bill never became the law. The Asian people again were the only major group of US population for which statistics by their country of origin were collected and are maintained by the US Census Bureau.

The recognition of Asian Indians as a separate sub group had given us a sense of pride and we wanted to keep that identity at any cost. This sub grouping authorized the Census Bureau to collect, maintain and provide data with respect to the number of Indian Americans in the U.S, their household income, education level, etc. However, the Bureau ran into some problem with data tabulation with one of the sub groups, titled “Other Asian” on the Census form. The respondents who checked the box “Other Asian” were expected to write in their own sub group. Some of the write-in sub groups got identified and were counted as part of the known sub groups while many were left uncounted towards their country of origin, a major loss for an avoidable mistake. Therefore, it is important that Indian Americans whether born in USA or in another country, whether a U.S. citizen or without documents, must check the box titled “Asian Indian” under the question, “What is this person’s race” on the Census 2000 form, for an accurate count.

The role of NFIA except with respect to the issue of elimination of sub-groups was to help the Census Bureau to track down every Indian American in the United States. The Indian American activists in the past had voiced their concerns that our community count was not correctly reported during the 1980 Census. Therefore, in the 1990 Census, we tried to ensure that everybody from the community was included and no one knowingly was left out, not even employees of public agencies, such as Embassy of India, Consular offices, State Bank of India, etc. The Census 2000 form requires you to indicate whether you are a citizen or not. And if you are not a citizen, no further question is asked whether you are in the U.S. with documents or without. The Census Bureau, by law, is required to keep all individual information confidential, so there should be no fear of being reported to immigration or tax authorities. It is imperative that all households answer the Census survey form and send back on time. Since the Bureau is determined to have complete and accurate count of all U.S. households, the census takers will go door-to-door to count residents who fail to send back their form by April 1.

About eight months prior to the 1990 Census date, NFIA established a liaison with the Census Bureau and passed a resolution endorsing the Bureau’s goal of complete and accurate count of U.S. population. The Board also committed to distribute Census promotional material through their member associations and disseminate Census related information in the Indian American community and media. As we started working more closely with the Census Bureau, we felt that we needed lot more funds to meet the Census Bureau’s expectation of our commitment with them. We wanted them to advertise in our ethnic media and they thought that our number did not warrant an expenditure outlay from their budget. They only agreed to send jointly signed letter of appeal along with Census material to a few thousand community activists and depended on NFIA and their member associations to distribute the census material in temples and community gatherings throughout the United States. The NFIA board spearheaded efforts to spread the census message and went beyond their means to help the Census Bureau, which long after the Census was over, honored NFIA with an award for outstanding contribution in support of the 1990 Decennial Census.

The 1990 Census goal was to have a full and accurate count of the U.S. population. But the Census Bureau lacked sufficient federal funds to achieve the desired objective and thus failed in achieving their goal. An estimated 8.4 million people, mostly minorities were left out and the 1990 Census turned out to be less accurate than its predecessor. Some states including California, where the undercount was reported, have been hurt badly; they were deprived of billions of dollars of federal funds over the last ten years. The short count might have also denied some states well-deserved number of seats in Congress. The reapportionment of state legislative districts could also have been affected.

For Census 2000, the Bureau would like to avoid the pitfalls of the last Census. It has already budgeted sufficient funds to call the Census 2000 to be the costliest Census ever–$6.8 billion. Millions of dollars are being poured into advertisements and billions more in hiring temporary staff for Census related work. A multicultural and multilingual outreach campaign has already been launched. Publicity in the ethnic media, including Indian American has not been ignored this time and that factor alone could help in tracking more foreign-born residents than at any time during the last many censuses.

NFIA played a significant role in the 1990 Census but cannot take past laurels for granted. During the last ten years, many Indian American regional, ethnic and professional organizations have gained more visibility, recognition and respectability and can play a major role in Census 2000. The leaders of all Indian American organizations, national or local, religious or social, political or professional, should band together to increase awareness about the census and boost full participation. They need to provide leadership in addressing the Census issue on timely basis and voice their concerns, if any, forcefully for the betterment of the Indian American community.

We, the community activists, will be failing in our responsibility if we do not educate and encourage members of our community for one hundred percent response to the Census questionnaire. We should find and pursue the hesitants and ensure that they stand up to be counted. We must understand that our objective is clearly defined, a full enumeration of people of Indian origin. Any inaction and timidity in pursuing that objective boldly and vigorously can haunt us for next ten years.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Inder Singh is Vice Chair, National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, a non-profit, serving Asian seniors. He was NFIA president 1988-92 and chairman 1992-96. He was founder President of FIA, Southern California.

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