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African Population COOK Co.

Chika Oduah/MEDILL

Percentage of Cook County's 2007 African-born population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

Push to boost African immigrant count turns on cash

by Chika S. Oduah
Oct 28, 2009

UAO Sunday Workshop

 Chika Oduah/MEDILL

Representatives from Chicago's Liberian, Togolese, Ghanaian, Tanzanian and Ugandan populations attended a workshop  to discuss the 2010 census outreach strategy.

The politics of the 2010 census outreach to Chicago's African immigrants

An accurate count of the local African immigrant population has political advantages. Lisa Simeone of the United African Organization said that accurate census counts aid the democratic process.

Census data determines the number of representatives in Congress, state and federal legislative districts.

“Politicians use the census to know who their constituents are,” Simeone said.

In the past, population counts lumped Africans with the African-American population. Simeone said the two groups should be distinguished because the two groups have different concerns and specific needs.

“We have to make sure that our needs our being considered,” said Alie Kabba, director of the United African Organization. “We’re not just an after-thought.”

However, U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-La.) has proposed a change in the law that would count only U.S. citizens when apportioning house seats. Currently the total number of residents is used. This could reduce the representation in areas with large immigrant populations, which are often large urban areas.

The 2007 survey for Cook County estimated that 56 percent of the county's 35,141 African-born residents were not U.S. citizens.

No one really knows how many Africans live in Chicago -- and that’s a problem.

“My presence, our presence needs to be known,” said Norbert Mwutila of the Tanzanian Community Association of Midwest USA.

“Someone should know about me,” he said.

Mwutila’s association and other community groups serving Chicago’s African immigrants have partnered with Chicago-based United African Organization to encourage African immigrants to participate in the 2010 census, which starts in February. The Count Me In campaign, a state-wide drive to encourage participation in the census of hard-to-count groups, has given $40,000 to United African Organization for its outreach.

The federal government uses census data to distribute approximately $14.3 billion annually to Illinois. The state uses the same data to allocate funds based on population to community-based groups. Organizations, such as the United African Organization, want to tap into these funds to improve services for their constituents.

Gaye Sleh, executive director of African Human Services, said an accurate count will make it easier to apply for state funding to organize more adult education classes and cultural programs.

“If we know who is out there, we will know how to help them,” he said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, immigrant groups are often hard to reach due to language barriers, geographic isolation or misinformation about the census. These groups have historically been undercounted.

African immigrants are a growing population. The 2000 census reported that 56 percent of all African immigrants arrived after 1990.

“We’ve got more African immigrants in the U.S. than ever,” said Lisa Simeone, research advocacy policy coordinator for United African Organization. “And an accurate census will provide proof of the African presence.”

More than 1 million African-born residents were reported in the 2002 American Community Survey in which the Census Bureau surveys a sample population and makes estimates. In Cook County, 35,141 African-born residents were estimated in 2007 survey. Alie Kabba, executive director of United African Organization, said that the real number could be up to 40 percent larger.

Representatives from various African populations and community groups devised a multifaceted campaign which includes: distribution of census material at social events, street level recruitment of Africans to help spread the word about the census, partnering with religious leaders and working with business and professionals.

John Henry Assabill, president of the Ghanaian Cab Drivers' Association said he plans to pass out informational flyers to other Ghanaian cab drivers.

The Ghanaian community is assumed to be one of Chicago’s larger African groups.

“Oh, we should be around 300,000,” Assabill said, basing his estimate on the fluid memberships of the 11 Ghanaian associations in the city and the number of people who show up at social events.

He is also the president of the Ghana National Council. He said the council will employ a six-member volunteer team of teachers and professionals, to visit the 23 Chicago area churches of predominantly Ghanaian congregations to talk about the census.

African community leaders will target African immigrants in Albany Park, Rogers Park, Uptown, South Chicago and in the cities of Romeoville and Joliet.