Lynne Gross, partnership specialist in eastern Oregon for the U.S. Census Bureau, gives a presentation last month at a meeting for the City of Ontario’s Complete Count Committee. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – Households in seven counties in Oregon will receive bilingual Census questionnaires in the mail and Malheur County is not one of them.

Members of a committee formed in Ontario to ensure everyone gets counted in the upcoming Census called the decision a “gut punch.”

The fear is that a lack of questionnaires in Spanish will lead to an undercount in Malheur County. Some areas of the county will receive a paper questionnaire while others will receive a letter of invitation to fill out the Census online.

[READ: Reaching out to the 'hard to count' in Malheur County]

“This is really putting another barrier on us,” said Norma Ramirez, programs manager with the Ontario-based nonprofit Euvalcree. Ramirez is working on outreach to promote the Census among Malheur County’s Latino community.

Latinos are considered a “hard to count” population by the Census, with historically lower rates of participation in the decennial headcount.

A spokesperson for the Census Bureau said bilingual mailing is determined at the Census tract level. A tract is a small subdivision of a county and averages about 4,000 people.

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All mailings will include the language assistance sheet that informs households they can complete their questionnaire online or by phone in 12 non-English languages. A statement is written in each supported language with the URL and phone number.

An entire census tract is selected for bilingual mailing in Spanish if at least 20% of the occupied housing units in the tract might require “Spanish assistance.” These are households in which at least one adult aged 15 or older speaks Spanish and does not speak English “very well.”

But according to Census data, none of the tracts in Malheur County meet the criteria.

While Census data says that 34% of the population in Malheur County is Latino and many households are Spanish-speaking, “that does not indicate that they do not also speak English,” a Census spokesperson said.

“Now that they won’t be receiving the Spanish mailers it’s going to discourage a lot of people” from participating in the Census, Ramirez said.

Local stakeholders argue that the data used by the Census Bureau is incomplete.

“If we’re not reaching out to these Spanish-speaking families how did they know to fill out the Census?” said Peter Hall, co-chair of the Complete Count Committee in Ontario. “If they don’t fill out the Census they [the Census Bureau] doesn’t have the data to know that there’s all these people in need.”

The committee, made up of representatives from local schools and nonprofits, is ramping up efforts to promote the Census locally. Bilingual mailers are being sent out at Four Rivers Community School and the Ontario School District.

Fliers will also be sent out in Somali and Arabic to reach out to Ontario’s refugee population.

The goal is to get the word out and ensure everyone gets counted. Hard-to-count communities are generally less aware or inclined to fill out the Census for various reasons.

But an accurate count is vital to getting a slice of billions of dollars in additional funding from the federal government.

Last week U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden urged the Census Bureau to ensure that the outbreak of coronavirus doesn’t impact the accuracy of the Census count.

“If we really want to be serious about counting everyone, maybe as a committee we can follow up with the Census Bureau and ask them to reconsider how they’re doing this because they’re missing a lot of people,” Hall said.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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