Silicon Valley’s Asian community mobilizing for 2020 Census, civic engagement issues

Ritu Jha-


With the theme “Stepping Up to 2020,” hundreds of community members attended the 2019 Silicon Valley Asian American & Pacific Islander Civic Leadership Summit held June 8, at Santa Clara County Office of Education in San Jose, California.

Several Silicon Valley community-based organizations, public officials, activists, legislative staff, faculty members and students discussed civic engagement, and the challenges and issues affecting the Asian community in the U.S., with a major focus on issues with the 2020 Census and the importance of engaging the community in voter registration.

Congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat representing California’s 17th District, gave the keynote address on how to get more people involved in the Census and getting an accurate count for 2020.

“It’s very important that everyone get out and get counted and getting more Asian Americans involved in the community,” said Khanna, a graduate of Yale University Law School.

Talking to indica on the conference’s sidelines about how to create awareness, Khanna said, “We need to organize more round tables … and we need to make sure everyone in the community fills out the form, to get the funding.”

When asked the biggest concern many Asians have – the possibility of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census he said, “I don’t think we should have a citizenship question, but if the Supreme Court rules against us, then we have to really organize and make sure there is no undercount. We have to come out and vote and get counted.”

Dr.Michael Chang, the founder and executive director at the Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute, (APALI) which convened a conference, said that 2020 is a key year.

“We want our community to become aware. So, we all came together,” Dr. Chang said.Dr.Chang, the first Asian American mayor of Cupertino, California, emphasized the importance of California’s early presidential primary in March 2020.

“In term of the Census, we have to raise awareness as a lot of times immigrants are undercounted and Asian community people do not want to get involved,” he said. “Asian community, we have people who are undocumented and tend to be uncounted, and many are not English proficient and does not want to get involved in the government. We want people to activate themselves and to activate their family. So, we brought in different community groups.”

“We have to be inclusive,” he said, adding that he’s concerned that the community is not engaged enough. “The Asian American participation… they are a stereotype, educated but not socially smart. I hate to say this – we think we are smart but no. They don’t understand we need to be counted to get funds. Our community is still new, and many people are not familiar and the whole national climate has turned against the immigrants.”

Karthick Ramakrishnan, director at Center for Social Innovation, and also  Chair of the California Commission on APIA Affairs, (Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs) urged conference attendees to work on civic engagement and the 2020 Census, reminding attendees about issues like “Public Charge,” which U.S. immigration officials use to refer to a person who is primarily dependent on government assistance.

“Public charge is still alive, and we know Asian Americans in large number avail the service but that issue did not catch fire. On gun control, it’s a major issue among Asian American. We did not see them on the street, and Muslim ban I saw mostly white people at the airport. We (Asian Americans) are not showing up,” said Ramakrishnan,

He added, “We are not out there, and not in the forefront. We should be doing an action piece which is so vital. Civic engagement is basic as funding. In terms of attracting mainstream funding, we need to have strategic data. So, data is important and without data are all anecdotes.”

“We have to make it (2020) personal, and our goal should be accurate count,” he said.

He told indica on the sidelines of the conference, “We live in a fully digital world. We have to be creative about creating awareness. And also reach out to temple, churches, and cricket clubs.”

Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance, told indica on Asian civic engagement, “There is a fair amount of engagement, and Congressman Ro Khanna has caused an upsurge in interest. But there is still a need to move a lot.”

Sarita Kohli, president and CEO of Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), told indica, “It’s really important for Census 2020 that each one of us is counted. People don’t understand the implications, how funding comes from the federal government.”

Funding is completely based on the Census numbers, and the biggest contribution the federal government makes to California is through healthcare.

“Regardless whether you are documented or undocumented or any visa, you are counted,” Kohli said. “So please get counted.”

“The reason is the more the number brings more funding,” she said, adding, “A bunch of South Asians have parents as well as low-income families. All those people are reliant on medical for healthcare, and those are really impacted by lack of Census number. We have to make sure everybody is counted whether they live in the ‘in-laws’ unit or garage, have to be counted because each one of us has a voice.”

But she also was concerned since many have stopped showing up for medical help at AACI. Kohli said the numbers are rising at the health center but because of the political environment people are hesitant to use “public charge.” Even Indian Americans are hesitant, so we need to provide and educate people.

“At community service center (AACI) we serve all, medical and even undocumented. I think it is important for people to understand we don’t share the record, and we don’t share any information. All worry and even Green Card holders’ family members are hesitant to seek help at the community center,” she said.

“I understand it´s a real fear. They don’t have status,” she said.

Protima Pandey, director of the Office of Women’s Policy for the county of Santa Clara, faulted that idea that Indian Americans are less engaged compared to other ethnic groups.

“We have a narrative built about us by somebody else. There is an assumption that we are doctors, engineers, technologists, but we are also a social activist and care about civic engagement and highlighting the voice of South Asians.” Pandey said.

“So, we have our own narrative that needs to be told, and we don’t speak up and say these are the challenges we are having,” said Pandey, adding, “We are trying to move the needle, and we see overwhelming east Asian but we need to have South Asian representation as well.”.

Anne Im, Immigration Program Officer at Silicon Valley Community Foundation, one of the panelists on AAPI Census 2020 Complete Count, told indica that filling out the 2020 Census form matters for the future and people need to be involved.

“If we don’t we are going to hurt ourself,” Im said.

When asked if questions about citizenship are not answered, will the form be rejected, Im said, “The Census Bureau has not told us definitely when you will get non-response follow-up or when the Census would be knocking at your door would be one of the last resort. But we encourage people to participate.”

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