Lizette Escobedo hoped to be the first Latina to serve on her hometown’s city council in Whittier, California. Civil engagement has always been her passion, so she took a chance but lost the 2018 election. While she was seeking her next fight on behalf of her Latino community, she started seeing the news about the Justice Department’s request to reinstate the citizenship question for this year’s census.
“The census is fundamental to the democratic process of our country,” said Escobedo. “It allows everyone to have a voice.”
The census counts everybody living in the U.S. and uses the data to determine congressional districts seats in the House of Representatives and congressional and state legislative districts as well as funding for community needs such as roads, schools, and other services.
The Trump administration’s attempt to discourage non-U.S. citizens to participate by trying to include a citizenship question on the census made Escobedo take a leap of faith and return to her position last year as the Director of National Census Program for The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.
“I called NALEO and said ‘let’s build a freaking campaign machine,’” said Escobedo.
With the days leading up to National Census Day on April 1, Lizette Escobedo has worked non-stop to ensure a full count of the Latino population. She first ran the campaign during the last Census in 2010.
The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the citizenship question violated federal law. Under the direction of Escobedo, NALEO is encouraging as many Latinos as they can to participate in this year’s census.
“Historically, these communities have never been accurately counted, so when you think that the census is every 10 years, think about the fact that these communities never had an accurate count,” said Escobedo. “You just continue to stack up the lack of funding and the lack of representation every 10 years.”
NALEO is launching radio and digitals ads that will focus on what will and will not be on the census form, including the lack of the citizenship question, in states that didn’t allocate funding for outreach, including Texas and Florida. The organization is also producing digital content because one thing the organization discovered through their research is that Latino millennials are the most uninformed about the census.
“It’s a lot that we’re going to have to undertake to educate a lot of millennials that would be the folks in the household to fill out the forms for their parents or grandparents, and then try to appease the fears of Latino immigrants who still think that the question might be on,” said Escobedo. “It’s a huge undertaking, but we’re doing what we can.”
People can fill out the census form in three ways – online, by phone or by mail – and every household will begin to see the census form in their mailboxes on or around March 12, 2020.
This is the first year the questionnaire will be digital. However, Escobedo said that the administration mandated a decrease in the census operational costs, so some changes were made such as only offering the paper questionnaire in either English or English/Spanish. The other 13 languages will only be available on the phone or online.
She added that 80 percent of the country will receive “internet first” treatment, meaning their letter from the Census Bureau will include an ID to file online while the other 20 percent of the country will receive “internet choice” that includes the paper questionnaire with their letter.
Another challenge is recruiting enumerators, aka census takers, that interview residents at households that didn’t fill out the form. With the current low employment rate, the bureau has to offer better wages in order to attract new workers. Enumerators also have to be U.S. Citizens, but Escobedo said her organization received late clarification that those who are work eligible, meaning lawful permanent residents or those with a DACA status, could apply to work as an enumerator.
“There’s just so many operational challenges that when you stack up the political challenges and everything that this administration has done to politicize and instill fear in our community, (the 2020 Census) is a whole other monster when it comes to the other censuses,” said Escobedo.
One thing that’s important to Escobedo is while the data can provide additional resources, benefits and political representation to the community, it can also be this moment in time where the Latinos can either take a step back into the shadows and stay quiet out of fear of being targeted or they can be seen and fill out the census.
“We’re here and as much as you fear us and as much as you spew any hate, and anti-Latino, anti-immigrant rhetoric, we’re going to be counted,” said Escobedo. “There’s power in that.”
Escobedo has childhood memories of seeing that her parents, both Mexican immigrants, were ignored as they tried to seek public services or were told they couldn’t apply for any type of assistance because they didn’t speak the language. It also frustrated her to see her parents stay quiet and not push back.
“A lot of thinking went behind what I do so that people like my parents don’t have to go through these terrible systems that don’t work for them,” said Escobedo.
One thing she tries to do is with her off time is help other women climb up in leadership and make sure they sit on commissions and that they have a voice in the community. When she ran for city council, she hired all women and not political consultants, for her campaign team.
“The whole point was was I going to define success by winning? Or was I going to define success also by building the next generation of women leaders here in the city,” said Escobedo. “So even though we didn’t win, we have started building this cohort of young women in leadership in the city.”
She also brings her 10-year-old daughter to political events, because she realized that in 10 years, her daughter will be a young woman of color who will grow up in the society this country is currently building for her. It’s another reason why she does her work in civic engagement.
“When you’re a mom and you have that responsibility, it’s not about the now, but it’s about the legacy you leave for them,” said Escobedo.
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