The census count wouldn’t begin in Texas for another year, but inside a Hidalgo County courthouse building, preparations were already well under way. It was the morning of March 13, and two dozen community leaders—representing local governments, nonprofit organizations, and the U.S. Census Bureau itself—had gathered around a set of tables. Many in the group, known as the Hidalgo County Complete Count Committee, had been meeting every month since September 2017. They had branded their effort in Spanish and English—Unidos Contamos /United We Count—and their goal was simple: make sure that everyone in Hidalgo County is counted in 2020.
“It just did not work last time,” said Ann Cass, a longtime Rio Grande Valley community organizer and a committee co-chair. “How many addresses were missed?”
It turns out quite a few. In 2010 the Census Bureau counted 775,000 people in Hidalgo County. But county officials believed the actual population was well over 800,000, perhaps as high as 845,000. How were as many as 70,000 people in a single county, nearly 10 percent of the population, completely overlooked? Thousands of residential addresses had simply never received a census form, but that was only part of the answer.
Everyone in the room that day was familiar with the challenges. Hidalgo County, a rapidly growing swath of the border anchored by McAllen and Edinburg, is home to a disproportionate percentage of demographic groups that are consistently undercounted—Latinos, children, immigrants. The Census Bureau has also struggled to reach the estimated 250,000 residents who live there in unincorporated rural communities known as colonias. In 2010 the bureau had decided that instead of sending census forms to the P.O. boxes that many colonia residents rely on, it would instead deploy staffers to go door-to-door in those communities to deliver surveys. In the eyes of many members of the complete-count committee, that effort had been almost comically bungled.
“You can’t walk 925 colonias. It’s just not possible,” Cass told me. “And they weren’t prepared for the dogs, because people use dogs like a burglar alarm. So we found surveys just blowing in the wind—literally.”
The complete-count committee is putting together a massive outreach effort to make sure this doesn’t happen again in 2020. Organizers plan to encourage more bilingual locals to apply for jobs with the Census Bureau. They’re asking schools and churches and community organizations to foster census participation and make computers available to residents who don’t have internet access at home. (For the first time, the Census Bureau is encouraging online responses.) But a potential tweak to the 2020 census form—a new question added by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross—could undermine their efforts. It reads: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
Hidalgo County is taking the citizenship question seriously. It has joined a federal lawsuit in New York that alleges that the question was unlawfully added and would dramatically reduce participation, leading to even greater undercounts nationwide. In January, district judge Jesse Furman had blocked the Trump administration from asking about citizenship. The question is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to hand down a final decision in June.
But local census organizers around Texas are concerned that the Trump administration’s push for a citizenship question, even if it’s ultimately removed from the form, has already made their work more difficult.
“The census is always a challenge,” said Ryan Robinson, Austin’s city demographer. “But this is the most daunting in modern history. Even if the citizenship question is taken off, the damage is done.”
The Census Bureau’s motto is “Counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” and “everyone” means everyone, regardless of race, age, voting eligibility, or immigration status. When the census comes up shy of its goal, undercounted communities get shortchanged.
Every year, the federal government uses the census to decide where to send hundreds of billions of dollars, guiding where money goes to pay for everything from food stamps to highway construction. In 2016 Texas received nearly $60 billion from the 55 largest federal spending programs, and that number should have been even higher.
The Census Bureau says it undercounted Texas in 2010 by nearly 239,500 residents, and the most undercounted communities, like Hidalgo County, get hit the hardest. An undercount has meant less money for Medicaid benefits and children’s health insurance; fewer spots in Head Start classrooms; and reduced availability of financial assistance programs to help elderly citizens pay their electric bills, moderate-income families buy houses, and less-affluent rural communities fund waste disposal. It has also meant a reduction in political power, since state legislative districts and congressional districts are apportioned by population, and that population is determined by the census.
The results of a 2020 undercount could be far more dramatic. In one study, the Census Bureau estimated that the citizenship question would result in a 5.8 percent drop in self-response rates in “households potentially containing noncitizens.” Nationally, that works out to 6.5 million people. In another study, a UCLA political scientist found that nonparticipation rates among Latinos—not undocumented immigrant Latinos, all Latinos—could drop 14 to 17 percent.
The bureau’s own research offers an explanation why. When the agency talked to a focus group of Latinos who spoke Spanish at home, the researchers found that if a citizenship question were included, “naturalized and native-born citizens alike said they would not participate out of fear for their community and members of their household.” One focus group member said that he felt that President Trump was “practically on a hunt” for Latinos. Another said, “If that question is included on the census, then it doesn’t matter how many posters they put up, how much Facebook, how much television, and how many dentist reminder cards they send home. Our community will not be counted.”
A massive drop in response rates among Latinos and immigrant communities would be devastating for Texas, which has a population that’s 40 percent Latino and 17 percent foreign-born. Houston, Dallas, Austin, and El Paso have all started complete-count committees, but it’s not just Democratic-leaning areas that have been forging ahead. Administrators in more conservative rural communities are trying to figure out how to head off an undercount. Kyle Ingham, the executive director of the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission, which represents 26 counties, told me that while his area was full of “good people that are going to fill out their paperwork,” he worried that some would hesitate to complete the census. Potter County, home to part of Amarillo, is around 40 percent Latino. “It could affect the undercount here pretty substantially,” Ingham said.
Many municipal officials are thinking about how to reduce an undercount, whether or not the citizenship question survives judicial review. At the first meeting of the Austin–Travis County Complete Count Committee on April 1, Austin mayor Steve Adler wondered aloud what the right response was to the kinds of fears the Census Bureau had found in the Latino community.
“What is the specific answer to someone who says, ‘Could I get in trouble if I participate, could someone find me, could someone find my family?’ ” Adler asked the group. “What is the specific answer to that fear question?”
The Census Bureau’s local partnership specialist, Maria Campos, spoke up. The Census Bureau is legally bound to keep census information confidential, meaning it cannot share data on individual households with anyone, and that includes other government agencies. “One of the things we consistently message out is the confidentiality of the census,” she told Adler. Still, Campos acknowledged that convincing people that their information would be safe was a challenge. “I know with this administration a lot of fear has been put out to our Latino and immigrant communities.”
If everyone is counted only once, and in the right place, the 2020 census should be a moment of triumph for Texas. Over the past decade, only Utah has grown at a faster rate, and many demographers believe that after the 2020 census is tallied, Texas will gain three congressional districts (and three additional electoral votes), more than any other state. But in a study of congressional apportionment and the 2020 census, the demographers Amanda Baumle and Dudley Poston, of the University of Houston and Texas A&M, respectively, showed that Texas’s potential political gains rest heavily on counting its noncitizens, both those with legal status and those without. If everyone in the country were counted, Texas would gain three congressional seats. If everyone except undocumented immigrants were tallied, Texas would pick up two seats. If only citizens were counted, Texas would be down to just one new congressional district. Baumle and Poston believe this is cause enough for all Texans to want the citizenship question to stay off the 2020 census.
“Adding a citizenship question to the census will not be good for Texas,” they wrote in a 2018 op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, in which they called on Texas attorney general Ken Paxton to join multistate lawsuits led by California and New York to force the Trump administration to remove the question.
Paxton, in fact, did the opposite. Instead of suing to stop the citizenship question, he joined the attorneys general of seventeen states in filing an amicus brief applauding its inclusion. The census has stirred political debate throughout its history, but the citizenship question and Trump’s vigorous defense of it (“Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all important Citizenship Question,” Trump tweeted) has turned a head count into a partisan quagmire. In Texas, even the complete-count committees—once a bipartisan no-brainer—are now suspect.
“Some business leaders and elected officials have been nervous about even saying, ‘We need a complete count,’ because it’s seen as politicized, which is bonkers,” said Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal Texas think tank that has advocated for a robust census outreach effort.
In November, Democratic El Paso state representative César Blanco introduced a bill in the Texas House to create a statewide complete-count committee. It was referred to the House State Affairs Committee, but it never got a hearing or any Republican cosponsors. Blanco later introduced two budget riders to allocate $100 million for census outreach. They also went nowhere.
This isn’t surprising. James Dickey, the Texas Republican party’s chairman, told me that he supports the work of complete-count committees so long as they are run by “citizen volunteers,” and he thinks that the “overriding message for everyone should be to answer the survey completely and correctly.” Yet when I asked if he thought undocumented residents should be included, he referred me to the Texas GOP platform, which has, since 2016, called for “an actual count of United States citizens only,” a position that would reverse not only Census Bureau policy but also 230 years of precedent. (The national Republican party has taken a similar position.)
Blanco argues that if Texas doesn’t mount an aggressive census outreach, California will “eat our lunch,” since the Golden State plans to spend $154 million on the task. California is not an outlier. Twenty-nine states have launched complete-count efforts, a number that includes such Republican-controlled states as Georgia, which has earmarked $1.5 million for that purpose. So far, the Texas Legislature has not committed a cent.
Blanco has sought to depoliticize the idea of a statewide complete-count committee, noting that former Republican governors Bill Clements and George W. Bush filed executive orders to encourage statewide participation. Governor Greg Abbott could do the same, and, indeed, Trump-supporting red-state governors like Arizona’s Doug Ducey and Kentucky’s Matt Bevin have issued complete-count executive orders. But Abbott has given no public indication he intends to do so, and he did not respond to a request for comment from Texas Monthly.
When I asked Blanco about the citizenship question, he said, “Absolutely I’m concerned about it,” but he was hoping he’d win over colleagues with a less partisan message. It was the same one that members of the Hidalgo County Complete Count Committee were trying to spread: “I want to make sure Texas gets its fair share.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Who Counts?” Subscribe today.