Latinos Sound Alarm on 2020 CensusHouston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce • Nov 06, 2017
Latinos sound alarm on 2020 census
Immigrant fears, mistrust will likely undercut response in county, Texas
By Bill Lambrecht
November 5, 2017 Updated: November 6, 2017 7:42am
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WASHINGTON - Latino leaders are warning of a developing crisis in the 2020 census and demanding that the Census Bureau act aggressively to calm fears in immigrant populations about data misuse.
Citing focus groups and initial interviews in Texas and across the country, the bureau's Mikelyn Meyers recently reported "an unprecedented groundswell in confidentiality and data sharing concerns" related to the 2020 count.
"We're concerned that this may present a barrier to participation in the 2020 census," she said. "And this is particularly troubling due to the disproportionate impact on hard-to-count areas."
Harris County, which is roughly 42 percent Hispanic, has long been an area of concern for the Census Bureau. Last spring, officials tested new technology in only two counties - Harris and Los Angeles - aimed at improving response rates in hopes of finding solutions before 2020.
More than 1.45 million people live in what are considered "hard-to-count" census tracts in the nine congressional districts that include Harris County, according to U.S. census data analyzed and mapped by the City University of New York's Center for Urban Research. The researchers counted tracts with response rates below 73 percent in the 2010 census as "hard to count."
Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, noted that the Latino community has historically shied away from participating in census surveys. For the 2010 census, the Houston chamber hosted information sessions and explained that responses assist the government in making decisions about how to spend federal tax dollars.
While Murillo said the chamber is willing to partner with the Census Bureau again, the federal government's actions on immigration have alienated many Latinos and will make openly sharing information with government officials a hard sell. She cited the Trump administration's decisions to push for a border wall and end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, also known as DACA, as reasons some may find to be wary.
"Trust has been breached," she said.
In particular, she said she suspects Latino families with at least one member living in the U.S. illegally will forgo participation out of fear over ramped-up immigration enforcement. Current DACA recipients, she added, already are concerned over what the Department of Homeland Security will do with their personal information once the program that grants them reprieve from deportation formally ends in March. To have them trust a census official is asking for a lot, she said.
The 2020 census could have a profound impact on Texas, which stands to gain three and possibly four congressional seats due to population shifts, and where Latinos are pressing for representation to match their fast-growing numbers.
But problems at the Census Bureau, leaderless since June and starved for funds, further complicate the goal of an accurate count. The bureau has canceled key testing and been scolded by government auditors for faulty cost estimates and failure to manage complex new IT systems.
In addition, the next census will take place heavily online, triggering hacking fears along with concerns about participation in areas of limited connectivity. Latino leaders who advise the Census Bureau professed alarm at the agency's findings. But they weren't surprised, they said, given what they hear from constituents along with talk about sabotage aimed at undercounting immigrants.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, told Census Bureau officials that many people feel unwelcome now in the U.S.
"They actually fear their own government, and that fear is not irrational, or unfounded. It is very real, and the cause of this fear comes from the highest offices in the government itself," he said.
The 2020 census may seem far in the future, but planning is well underway, and the only full-fledged dress rehearsal, in Providence, R.I., is five months away.
Advocates are pressing the Census Bureau to swiftly devise plans to counter fears. They also want census takers trained to assuage worries and census materials with clear messages that information will stay private.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, also told bureau officials that they should get commitments from Homeland Security and immigration officials to not interfere with the count.
"I guarantee you today that if something is not done, the uncontrolled immigration enforcement force ... in 2020 will have agents out there using a ruse of being a census enumerator," he said.
Census Bureau officials acknowledge the challenge. Enrique Lamas, deputy director and chief operating officer, said the bureau intends to hire 1,000 people in a community partner program deploying influential people to encourage participation. That's 200 more than for the last census.
Money continues to be a problem. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the Census Bureau's boss, showed up on Capitol Hill last month with unwelcome news that the 2020 count will cost $3.3 billion more than anticipated. The current projected cost: $15.6 billion.
Ross said the census "urgently" needed an additional $187 million for next year - still less than half of the fund boost typical at this stage before the decennial count. Ross, a billionaire distressed assets investor, has operated as point man for the census since Bureau Director John Thompson resigned after criticism on Capitol Hill. The White House has yet to appoint a replacement.
Susan Carroll and Ileana Najarro contributed.