ATLANTIC CITY — They work in casinos here six days a week. Most of them own or rent a house, and some of their children even go to local public schools.
But these Chinese immigrant workers, known as “invisible” residents, don’t consider Atlantic City their home. While they live in the area for years, on paper they are New York City residents.
As households across the United States have begun receiving this week an invitation to complete the census online or on the phone, these “invisible” Chinese immigrants will unlikely be counted in Atlantic City — and some community leaders are concerned that it could result in “substantially less accurate population count” and “affect funding allocation and political representation” for the city.
“I have seen Chinese immigrants who work in Atlantic City for five or six days a week and just spend weekends with their families and friends in New York City,” said Lucy Hu, secretary of Immigrants and Minorities Unify Services Association (IMUSA). “But they have registered themselves as NYC residents because the public benefits there are far better and more accessible.”
Though it has been underreported, if there’s any, Hu added the case of these Chinese immigrants is not new — and most of them have chosen to remain “invisible.”
It was in 2010, when she volunteered to do outreach in the Chinese community for the census in Atlantic City, that she first encountered these “invisible” residents.
“I have worked for over 10 years serving many Chinese immigrants, so I know many of them,” she said.
According to Hu, she knew of a Chinese man in his early 30s who registered his whole family as New York City residents, even though he, his wife and two children were living in Atlantic City.
The young man, Hu said, had relatives living in New York City, so his family would stay with his relatives and spend on weekends or during his day off there.
“He told me that the reason he registered as a ‘New York City resident’ is that he can get better public benefits, such as food stamp and Medicaid for him and his family, there,” Hu said, adding that “these benefits are more accessible in New York City than in Atlantic City.”
While there is no available resource to show that “invisible” Chinese residents in Atlantic City did have an impact on the previous census, community leaders said that their number has increased over the recent years. Many of these residents now have kids who actually go to public schools in the area.
In some cases, according to Eric Lu, founder of IMUSA, there are Chinese immigrants in Atlantic City who would use the address of their friends or relatives in New York City so they can register as “NYC residents.”
“It’s a shortsighted behavior. They just want to take advantage of these public benefits [in a wrong way]. And they don’t even think about their kids and other kids in Atlantic City schools, who may not have enough resources because of what they are doing.” Lu added.
Over the last five years, the number of people living in Atlantic City continues to decline, which trend experts say can be attributed to aging populations, growing second-home ownership and the condition of Atlantic City’s economy.
Atlantic County shed 9,120 residents between 2010 and 2018, according to U.S. Census estimates. Its population now sits at 265,429, the seventh smallest out of New Jersey’s 21 counties. From 2017 to 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Branch shows that more than 1,300 people moved to Atlantic County from abroad, but 2,129 residents left.
Census and Atlantic City’s Chinese community
Attracted by economic opportunities of large casinos, Chinese immigrants have moved to Atlantic City in recent years. Many of them have worked in the casinos for more than a decade, raising their children and building their lives in the area.
But because of odd work hours, community leaders say they are mostly isolated, preventing them from interacting with people or participating in social discourse.
Lu, who has been a casino worker for 28 years, said most of them don’t even have time to look at flyers, if they exist, that promote the importance of the census.
“There are usually three work shifts in the casinos. When casino workers are off, they will drive or walk home directly; they don’t really hang out elsewhere,” Lu added. “This is one of the reasons they lack information about the upcoming census.”
He also believes that, in Chinese culture, it is important to mind one’s own business — and that also prevents Chinese immigrants from census engagement. “To avoid unnecessary trouble, ‘hoe your own potatoes,’ as we say in Chinese. And that’s why you see low voting turnout and low census participation among Chinese immigrants.”
How to make “invisible” Chinese residents visible?
Hu pointed out that educating Chinese immigrants about the census is very important: “We should let them know why census matters for both local residents and government. We should let them know how the census results will affect them.”
Promoting census in Chinese through multiple channels, such as billboards outside of the casinos, ethnic media and flyers in local [Chinese] restaurants or supermarkets, would also help raise awareness about the census in the community.
The census cannot be done successfully, she added, without a robust support from casino operators.
“If you make the census more accessible to casino workers, they will definitely participate and will also become more visible,” Hu said.