census caravan haitian community
A volunteer speaks through a megaphone, during the September 2020 Census Carnival Caravan in Miami-Dade, to encourage census participation among Haitians. Courtesy: Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center

In early 2019, Haitian community leaders from New York to Florida began organizing to increase participation in the 2020 Census among compatriots in the United States. 

In the spring of that year, the nonprofit Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center helped coordinate the Haitian American Complete Count Committee in Miami-Dade County. The group organized phone banking, educational programming via radio and even an in-person caravan in the fall of 2020, said Leonie Hermantin, development and communications director at Sant La.

The decennial population count ended nearly a year ago, and the U.S. Census Bureau began releasing data in April. On Aug. 12, the bureau released redistricting data, used to draw legislative districts, that contains information about population growth, age, race and more. The Census Bureau has not provided a date for releasing more granular data about ethnicity and country of origin.

But community leaders like Hermantin have voiced concern that an undercount of these figures will lead to fewer dollars for social services, healthcare, child care, and other programs that depend on population numbers, in communities that contain large numbers of Haitians. 

“We’re very concerned about that early childhood piece, and these are funds that are based on numbers,” Hermantin said. “The county itself is a gross underestimation of the numbers, but nonetheless this is what stands.”

The overall populations of Miami-Dade County and Brooklyn, homes of the two largest concentrations of Haitians, increased by 8.2% and 9.2%, respectively since 2010. Both counties have just over 2.7 million people each, August Census data indicates. 

Respondents who identified as Black or African American comprised 14% of the population in Miami-Dade and 26% of the population in Brooklyn

In 2020, the Census Bureau gave respondents more options to indicate their country of origin in addition to their race, with the word “Haitian” listed as a potential example for those who also identify as Black. 

Even with the additional options, some Haitians were still reluctant to complete the census, out of immigration fears. Rumors had spread that immigration enforcement officials would use the data — one of many factors that likely prevented an accurate count of Haitians from the outset, Hermantin said.

“That rumor was so powerful in the community that even citizens were asking if it was safe to respond to the Census,” Hermantin said. “It was just a confluence of things, plus COVID, which made in-person door-to-door canvassing really difficult.”

Haitian count stymied from start 

Throughout 2020, multiple actions by the Trump administration sowed confusion and were criticized by Haitian leaders. The Republican administration threatened to exclude non-citizens from the overall count and the redistricting process, actions that were unsuccessful. Last year, Trump also threatened to end the census count a month early, in September, although data collection ultimately ended in October 2020 as originally planned. 

The Census Bureau plans to release more data this year but has not returned multiple calls and emails requesting comment on further race and ethnicity data.

Despite the opportunity to identify as Haitian on the 2020 Census, Stony Brook University Africana Studies Professor Georges Fouron said that achieving an accurate count will be extremely difficult. 

“When we speak about the Haitian community we have to be very careful, because it is not a monolithic bloc of people,” said Fouron.

In addition to the uneasiness of undocumented residents, there are class divisions among Haitian-Americans. For example, some upper middle class Haitians that began arriving in the 1960s have historically sought to distance themselves from working-class populations that began arriving years later, divisions that still exist today, Fouron said. Media portrayals of Haiti depicting poverty and instability can also discourage census reporting more broadly, he added. 

In the future, Fouron suggested, the government should provide churches and community centers with more resources to identify clients who need to fill out the census. 

“The way the larger American society thinks may not be appropriate for many, many of these immigrants, and a different attitude should be adopted,” Fouron said. “Don’t send people from the government to knock on people’s doors.” 

Throughout the country, community leaders and local officials have expressed concern that overall population counts are inaccurate, because certain communities were overlooked. Census counts of the Hispanic population in Arizona and the Black population in Louisiana, for instance, are well below previous estimates, according to the Associated Press

While achieving an accurate count might be difficult, the census impacts federal funding for resources, like Section 8 housing vouchers and early childhood centers that are crucial for Haitian communities, said Hermantin. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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