By Orhan Akkurt – Edited by Anthony Advincula
CLIFTON, NJ — The count for the 2020 U.S. census will officially begin in less than a month, but as it nears residents of Turkish descent in New Jersey are still facing a host of challenges that could make their community as one of the toughest ethnic groups to count in the Garden State.
Language barriers, insufficient access to computers and the internet, and concerns about safety and security, according to Turkish leaders, are some of the critical factors that members of the Turkish community across the state may not be able to participate in the census.
“A lot of us are just confused. With limited English, particularly among recent immigrants, most of us have not seen any census materials in Turkish,” said Birol Özkan, a resident of Passaic, NJ. “We just don’t know who to ask for the right information about the census.”
Since the population count is done differently in their native Turkey, Özkan added that many Turkish immigrants don’t even know about basic information on the decennial count: what the census is, does everyone should be counted, how to participate, or why it is important to be counted.
Starting March 12, 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau will mail paper forms to households in areas with low internet access. The paper census forms are available only in Spanish and English.
But people can answer to census questions online or over the phone in 13 languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese.
April 1, 2020 is the official Census Day.
“It’s disappointing that Turkish is not one of the languages. With negative or false information [about the census] that many of us would get from unreliable sources, it makes it a lot harder to convince our community members to participate,” Özkan said.
Fear and Distrust
Although the U.S. Supreme Court blocked in June the Trump administration from adding a question on citizenship to the 2020 census, mistrust of government and concerns about privacy are palpable in the Turkish community.
“Like any other immigrant communities, many of us are also reluctant to respond to the census over fears of immigration enforcement and data privacy breaches,” Özkan said.
Peter Chen, a policy counsel at the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, assured that all responses to the census will be kept completely confidential — and will not be shared with “any government agency, particularly the immigration office.”
“Without an accurate census, communities will lose investments in areas such as schools and roads. They will also lose political power,” he said. “The census is also the best opportunity to find out how many people from different ethnic backgrounds and where they live in the United States.”
By law, Chen added, any government employees sharing personal information culled from the census could face up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.
According to the latest U.S. census data, the Turkish population in the United States grew from 195,000 in 2010 to about 223,000 in 2017. An estimated 25,000 Turks call New Jersey their home.
But because ethnic Turks have migrated not just from Turkey but also from the Balkans, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, and the former Soviet Union, the population of Americans of Turkish descent is believed to be larger.
The Assembly of Turkish American Associations estimated that about 500,000 Turks are currently living in the United States.
“Turkish Americans have been historically undercounted,” Özkan said. “We believe that census questionnaires in Turkish will encourage more residents of Turkish descent to participate.”
This story was part of the “2020 Census: New Jersey Media Counts,” an initiative of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.