By Jongwon Lee, The Korea Daily
Editor’s note: This is the English translation of the original story, which was first published in Korean for The Korea Daily. This version has been updated and edited, with permission from the author(s) and publication(s), for length and clarity.
BERGEN COUNTY — Outside of Hanyang Mart, in Ridgefield, NJ, Rev. Hak “Crane” Kim set up a pop-up booth last week to distribute face masks, gloves and water to customers of the supermarket.
Other than personal protective equipment or PPE, small piles of census flyers and pamphlets in Korean, Mandarin and Japanese languages were neatly arranged and displayed on the table.
Kim, director of the Senior Center at Asian Women’s Christian Association, handed out free PPE to customers—mostly Korean and other Asian immigrants—and, at the same, showed them how to fill out the 2020 Census questionnaire using the electronic kiosks.
“People were surprised when I showed them how easy it is to fill out an online census questionnaire in Korean language,” Kim said. “Doing it online takes only about three or four minutes. I believe that mobile devices and online questionnaires have narrowed a huge census response gap amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Kim and his fellow advocates are finding various ways for Korean immigrants in New Jersey to participate in the decennial census.
“We want every Korean in the state to have a voice. Kids, parents, grandparents—everyone should be counted,” said Kim. “Korean Americans can now respond to the 2020 Census by visiting online. No need to worry about reading the questions in English. Everything in 2020census.gov/ko is written in Korean, and it is easy to follow.”
Undercounted Korean population in NJ
But while New Jersey has 74.2 percent response rate as of August 6, 2020, which is higher than the national average, many Koreans in the state still have not responded to the 2020 Census.
For example, in Palisades Park, NJ, a city often called the “Little Korea in America” due to its significant Korean immigrant population, the response rate this week was recorded at 50.3 percent—which was 17.6 points behind its final 2010 rate.
That means that if Koreans and other residents don’t respond via online or telephone, the U.S. Census Bureau said that “a greater share of non-responding homes will need to be counted in-person—an especially challenging task now that the Census Bureau has shortened the door-knocking time frame by four weeks.”
“Response rate is an important measure to find whether the region is undercounted or not. We are noticing the region is really seeing some great response rate when we conduct person-to-person assistance with trusted local partners,” Lisa Moore, assistant New York Region Census Manager, said during a recent conference call with ethnic media in New Jersey.
What causes such an undercount in the Korean community in Bergen County (which includes Palisades Park) may be difficult to pinpoint, but Korean community leaders believe that it can be attributed to various factors.
“First of all, many Koreans in Palisades Park rent or sublease an apartment. They are temporary residents, moving in and out each year or two. That makes them hard to count,” said Dong Chan Kim, executive director of Korean American Task Force and president of Korean American Civic Empowerment.
Dong Chan also added that a substantial number of Koreans in the area work for South Korean companies that have an office in New Jersey, or they are international students. They generally work or study for two or three years and then go back to Korea.
“Due to their temporary status,” he added, “they lack a sense of belonging in their local communities and they don’t feel the need to respond to the Census.”
Peter Chen, policy counsel for the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, reiterated that everyone, including foreign students and temporary workers, should be counted.
“International students do not need to worry about the census. Responding to the census is easy, important, and safe,” he said. “The Census Bureau just wants to verify that you are a person and that you have an address. It will not ask in-depth and specific questions about your nationality or immigration status.”
“Even if you are an international student, you are required to respond to the 2020 Census. Just count yourself at the address where you live and sleep most of the time,” added Moore of the U.S. Census Bureau. “In case of international students, your address must be your college dormitory or rental room near your college.”
Language barrier among Korean seniors
But one of the main reasons for the undercount in the Korean community, according to community leaders, is the limited English proficiency among Korean seniors and it is almost impossible for them to answer the census questionnaire online.
The latest U.S. census data shows that there are 104,842 Koreans in New Jersey. This figure, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea, accounts for a significant number of Korean senior citizens in the state.
“Korean seniors find it hard to respond to the census online. Some are merely unaware of the census because they don’t read or speak English. There is a language barrier,” Dong Chan said. “Others have no internet access. For those seniors, online census is not viable; they particularly need in-person assistance, which becomes tough during this pandemic.”
Still, Dong Chan is optimistic that the majority of Koreans in New Jersey will effectively respond to the census online, especially during this coronavirus pandemic.
“Shelter-in-place was a great time to do phone banking because everyone is staying at home and answering our calls,” he said.
To date, he and other volunteers have already called nearly 10,000 Korean immigrants, including 6,000 seniors, and instructed them how to fill out the census online or on the phone call.
“I’ve done the census campaign for 20 years in the Korean community, both in New Jersey and New York. In 2010, many Koreans did not receive the census paper-based forms or forgot where they placed them,” Dong Chan added. “Back then, the saying ‘no census form, no response’ was common in the immigrant community. But now, in the 2020 Census, no need for those paper-based forms.”
This story was part of the “2020 Census: New Jersey Media Counts,” an initiative of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.
- A volunteer of Asian Women’s Christian Association assists a Korean to fill out Census online with a mobile kiosk device at Hanyang Mart in Ridgefield, NJ on July 30, 2020.