“When we are counted, we exist,” Hieu Nguyen told the small crowd of Vietnamese immigrants gathered in a community room in the heart of Little Saigon.
Hieu Nguyen, founder of the LGBTQ-rights group Viet Rainbow of Orange County, said through a microphone that the county’s Vietnamese community has historically been undercounted. According to 2010 census data, more than 200,000 Vietnamese live in Orange County, though many believe this number is significantly higher.
“We don’t exist in the eyes of the state or the federal government,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen and several other community organizers and civic leaders on Monday spoke to the importance of filling out the 2020 census for the Vietnamese community of Orange County.
By mid-March, residents will begin receiving directions from the Census Bureau by mail on how to respond to the 2020 census.
Speakers laid out what was at stake if the community continues to be undercounted — lack of federal funding, diminished representation and a weakening of the voice of the largest Little Saigon in the country.
The event, held in the community room of Nguoi Viet Daily News, the first and largest Vietnamese newspaper in the country, was the first organized by the Vietnamese Complete Count Committee, a collaboration of a number of the county’s nonprofits and community leaders.
Mai-Phuong Nguyen, who spearheads the group, said the Vietnamese community will suffer without adequate funding going towards significant social services and government programs.
“That data seeps into every aspect of our lives,” Mai-Phuong Nguyen said.
Becky Nguyen, the executive director of the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation, said during the meeting that census numbers are used to persuade the federal government for resources for healthcare-related services.
Mai-Phuong Nguyen pointed to the mental health needs of the Vietnamese community.
Rates of mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety are higher among Vietnamese Americans than other Asians, a byproduct of a war-ravaged past.
“PTSD is rampant, it is pervasive and it is intergenerational,” Mai-Phuong Nguyen said.
Vincent Tran of the activist group, VietRISE, said at the meeting that census data can also be a way to maintain Vietnamese culture and history.
He pointed out that the larger numbers would give more weight to the group if they try to lobby the government for a Vietnamese National Museum.
Mai-Phuong Nguyen said she’s hoping to organize more events to encourage the Vietnamese community to fill out the census and dispel the anxieties surrounding it, though she will need to raise funds.
Several Orange County community groups, including VietRISE, recently received significant funding to work on community engagement and messaging campaigns in order to get the undercounted and underrepresented populations of the county to take part in the 2020 census.
The Vietnamese population is not the only community that has been historically undercounted in Orange County. In addition to other communities of color, the list also includes children under 5, the homeless and veterans.
Each group has unique reasons why they don’t respond to the census.
Mai-Phuong Nguyen, who was airlifted out of Vietnam when she was six and spent time in two refugee camps, said a major reason for the Vietnamese community’s reluctance is a distrust of the government.
“Culturally, we just don’t engage with the government because of the biography of being part of an oppressive regime,” Mai-Phuong Nguyen said. “They don’t trust government, so why would you want to be visible?”
“Americans are like, ‘If you are not seen or heard, then we don’t count.’ But Vietnamese are like, ‘Stay within the shadows.’ ”