Portland’s fastest growing ethnic group struggles to be counted

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The 2020 US Census will take a closer look at America’s racial makeup – asking for even more details on ethnicity.

For a racial group in the Pacific Northwest, the census offers a chance to build on the success of the latest tour – a survey that showed a surprising result for the fastest growing population in Portland. .

“For a long time, many people believed that the Asian and Hispanic populations were the fastest growing in the city of Portland, said Nick Chun, demographer at Portland State University. “It’s actually the native Hawaiian population.”

Worshipers gather at Rose City Ward Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Portland for Relief Society celebration

Erica Morrison / OPB

The number of Pacific Islanders and native Hawaiians rose 5.4% in the last census, double the rate for people of Asian descent and even more than double the rate for Latinos.

And within that population, Portland is experiencing particularly rapid growth among the Tongan population.

Tongans started coming to Oregon in the late 1970s. Much of this migration was by word of mouth – when one family settled down, they told another and another about it. and to another.

Community leader Kolini Fusitu'a and other men gather for a circle of kava after service at the Lents Tongan Fellowship of the United Methodist Church

Community leader Kolini Fusitu’a and other men gather for a kava circle after service at the Lents Tongan Fellowship of the United Methodist Church

Erica Morrison / OPB

Climate change, which is eating away at the islands, is accelerating the displacement of the population.

But much of the evidence for Tongan migration was anecdotal until the 2010 census. For that tally, community organizers and advocates for immigrant communities worked hard to increase the number of people who actually responded.

Kolini Fusitu’a, program coordinator for the nonprofit IRCO, knocked on doors, spoke at church meetings and attended cultural gatherings to spread the word. The US Census Bureau has also targeted Pacific Islanders with posters of a girl in traditional island dress and a famous ocean navigator from the Micronesian island of Chuuk.

Suliasi Laulaupaalu leads the choir on a Sunday afternoon at the Lents Tongan Fellowship of the United Methodist Church

Suliasi Laulaupaalu leads the choir on a Sunday afternoon at the Lents Tongan Fellowship of the United Methodist Church

Erica Morrison / OPB

Getting Tongans and other islanders to respond to the census meant overcoming some fear.

“You have this white person knocking on the door, they have a name tag, a notepad and a pen,” Fusitu’a said. “If they’re not bill collectors, it might be the police.”

Census results are important, especially for small and growing populations who may need special services to assimilate or settle in a new country. Census results help determine how billions of dollars in federal money are distributed each year.

In 2020, the federal government will ask for even more detailed information: not just where you are from, but where your family is from. This may include breaking down the indigenous Pacific Islander and Hawaiian populations into individual ethnic subcategories, such as Fijians, Samoans, and Tongans.

“We’ve been seeing this trend for a while, people see these categories of ‘Asian’, ‘White’, ‘African American’ and they don’t identify with them. So they check another race, ”Chun said. “So the census really loses a lot of precision. “

Worshipers kick off the evening celebration with a traditional Tongan walk around the auditorium of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Rose City Ward in Portland

Worshipers kick off the evening celebration with a traditional Tongan walk around the auditorium of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Rose City Ward in Portland

Erica Morrison / OPB

The 2020 census will also ask respondents if they are U.S. citizens. Advocates for small immigrant populations, like the Tongans, are concerned about the impact this could have on their efforts to get more people to respond to the survey.

“It could produce a very large undercoverage,” Chun said.

The City of Portland is trying to increase, not decrease, the public face of the Tongan community. This summer, the city’s police and parks offices are holding their second annual Tonga Day celebration. It will include food, dancing and other cultural traditions.

It’s another way of reminding the rest of Portland that Tongans exist – though defenders go to great lengths to remind Tongans in Portland that the census matters to them.

“We like to say, you don’t matter unless you are counted,” Chun said.



Sharing America: a collaboration between public radio stations

Erica Morrison is on the collaborative public radio “Sharing America”, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters from the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more “Sharing America” ​​coverage here.


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