Staging a ‘mela’ for Indian immigrants to raise 2020 Census count

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It looks like a mela, sounds like a mela with all the music and dancing, feels like a political rally with speakers and loudspeakers. It is the brainchild of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of the Census Deputy Director of Amit Singh Bagga.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of the Census Deputy Director Amit Singh Bagga speaks to a largely socially distanced crowd at the Sept. 20, 2020 rally for the Census 2020 count in Richmond Hill, New York. Others in the photo include Sarabjit Kaur from United Sikhs in the red turban; Mo Q. Amin: Caribbean Equality Project (Indo-Caribbean LGBTQ+ group)in a multi-colored mask: Annetta Seecheran, Chhaya CDC, in orange jacket; Aminta Kilawan from Sadhana: A Coalition of Progressive Hindus, in multicolored pants; and Kate Mooney, Office of Council Member Adrienne Adams, in a white jacket. Photo: courtesy Amit Bagga.

The event held Sunday, Sept. 20, at the Baba Makhan Shah Lubana Sikh Center in South Richmond Hill, was described by organizers as the “Richmond Hill, NY Census Caravan” and it was yet another attempt by the Big Apple to engage Indian and other immigrants in a neighborhood which is showing a way too low response rate thus jeopardizing future allocations for social services, education, and infrastructure development for the next 10 years, warns Bagga.

The push to engage more South Asians in the 2020 Census count has intensified as the Sept. 30, 2020 deadline to submit forms looms. This is especially so in the Richmond Hill, N.Y. area where according to leaders, the percentage of people who responded was as low as 38 percent and is now at around 50 percent.

As of September 18, Richmond Hill’s self-response rate is nearly 10 percentage points behind that of the rest of New York City’s, which has now broken 60 percent, Bagga’s office says. While New York City’s current self-response rate represents a significant closure of the gap between New York City and the nation as compared to 2010, (5.9 percentage points now vs. 14 percentage points in 2010), many communities in New York City are still lagging, and Sunday’s events are part of a two-week intensive, major haul to ensure all New Yorkers are counted, according to organizers.

“It was very successful today (Sept. 20, 2020). We have an incredible show of force by the Punjabis, Sikhs and the Indo-Caribbean people, to spread the word on the Census,” Bagga told Desi Talk.

“This was very unique, because in a neighborhood like Richmond Hill where the two communities are not always united, it reminds us that with 51 percent Census 2020 response rate,  we are losing millions of dollars for schools and hospitals,” Bagga said.

The low turnout, he contends, is partly because the system is designed in a way that new immigrants are not aware of how “very powerful” a census is and that it is completely irrespective of one’s immigration status.  Add that to some amount of mistrust in Federal control, and some confusion within a section of the undocumented about that disconnect between your immigration status and federal authorities.

This year however, it was a double-whammy – first to counter the question on immigration status being included in the Census response form, which took two years to defeat; but then the COVID-19 pandemic which prevented local people from the community to spread awareness about the Census.

Regardless of the situation, Bagga implores residents that their immigration status is of no consequence, and “We should respond honestly on the form; That information cannot be shared with Immigration, Police, Housing authorities, or anyone. Title 13 made that clear in 1953. It is the strongest privacy law and has never been broken. “If we feel like our schools are overcrowded or our hospitals are underequipped, it’s all  result of our not participating,” he reprimands.

Bagga said his office has managed to reach out to 3 million New Yorkers and sent out 7 million texts, a measure of the massive effort put forward. “But immigrant communities like the personal touch and its only in the last couple of months that we have been able to do that,” he says.

From a low of 38 percent response, even raising to 51 percent is a major accomplishment, Bagga reminds us. He credits Mayor Bill de Blasio with apportioning the $40 million investment into the Census count. “And $19 million of that has gone to community organizations who stepped up their outreach game to meet people and do some amount of door-to-door canvassing as well as using their food distribution networks and online meetings.

For the few days remaining Bagga says, “We are going to do everything possible to go physically into the communities. And if our communities demand respect, then they must inform their relatives, friends, others about the ten minutes for ten questions that will decide the next 10 years of our future,” he says.

Bagga’s life experiences he feels have influenced his outlook on tackling a multicultural neighborhood of South Asian families, not always seeing eye-to-eye. His mother is Hindu and father a Sikh. It is never far from his mind how many storms they weathered in their journey to America and making it their home  – the dislocation from the Partition of India and then again to immigrate to the U.S. from India. Though Bagga is an NYC native, born here, he went to study in India as a child and spend many years there as well.

“It has been my life’s mission to make this not only a bigger, better, fairer city, but that as South Asians, our voices are heard and our needs addressed,” he told Desi Talk. “For me the relationship is very, very personal.”

“We do not have the power and representation that our numbers deserve,” Bagga feels. “But if you don’t participate, you do not have the numbers that will enable you to realize your future, and secure your future,” he says.

One of the challenges that he says exists in Richmond Hill in particular is that the Punjabis, Sikhs, and Indo-Carribean people – “sometimes, as happens, the communities don’t get along. Politics and lived experiences come in the way,” he notes.

“This Census is an opportunity to come together and say- ‘This is our shared history and together we find the strength.’ It’s an opportunity to proclaim proudly our united and shared history,” Bagga says.

The press conference, a census caravan, pop-up census assistance centers etc., at the Sept. 20 event drew crowds despite Covid but maintaining social distance as much as possible. Speeches were given in Punjabi, Hindi and English. Apart from Bagga, the other speakers included Harpreet Singh Toor, partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau; Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation; Mohamed Amin, founder of the Caribbean Equality Project; Anshu Khadk, community organizer from the non-profit Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), representatives from Sadhana: a Coalition of Progressive Hindus; and United Sikhs.

 

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