Hispanic leaders warn census could undercount minority communities amid pandemic

Greg Nash

Hispanic communities are lagging behind in 2020 census response rates, raising fears of low participation that could limit the reach of federal programs in those areas for the next decade.

The country’s most heavily Hispanic congressional district, California’s 40th, had a response rate of 49.5 percent as of Tuesday, compared with the state’s 60.1 percent rate and the national 59 percent rate.

Puerto Rico, a territory that’s heavily dependent on federal funding and is 98.6 percent Hispanic, has a response rate of only 8 percent, far short of its 2010 response rate of 53.8 percent.

In Texas, the most Hispanic district in the state is also the one most lagging in census responses.

That district’s House representative, Filemon Vela (D), told The Hill that before the coronavirus pandemic, census outreach was a top issue for representatives in the Rio Grande Valley region.

“And then, boom! COVID came and our efforts have been totally redirected to constituent services,” said Vela.

“Now that I think about it, we could be doing census stuff at the same time but everything’s on fire, we’re working on basic stuff, making sure people are fed,” he added.

Census watchers say the challenge to reach minority communities is monumental.

“The census is in crisis and Latinos are in the crosshairs in terms of everything that could possibly go wrong,” said Arturo Vargas, the CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

Latinos have been hit hard by the virus itself and by its economic consequences, with record job losses, a high number of those still employed being essential workers and disproportionate rates of infection. That leaves many reluctant to focus on the less immediate question of the census. 

But even taking into account those challenges, “the Census Bureau has done an abysmal job of advertising to Latino households,” said Vargas.

While the Census Bureau has adapted its English-language messaging to focus on why filling out the survey is crucial even amid the pandemic, ads in Spanish are still those rolled out before the crisis, focusing on data privacy, a key issue for many Hispanics that is nonetheless being eclipsed by coronavirus worries.

A Census Bureau spokeswoman said the agency is not currently granting interviews to media, but is putting out news releases on all its activities for full transparency, in Spanish and other languages used by minorities.

The pandemic’s effects on Hispanic response rates comes as concerns were already brewing about how many households would be afraid to take the survey after a controversy involving the addition of a citizenship question, which the Supreme Court shot down last year.

“The fear of the immigration question is certainly lurking in the back of this for some people,” said Vela, adding that the pandemic has overtaken most other issues.

“Right now people are just focused on how to handle this virus, I would think,” he said. 

Local outreach efforts have driven notable differences between states, however.

The two states with the biggest Hispanic populations provide an example: 60.1 percent of households in California have responded to the census, while only 53.5 percent of households in Texas have done so.

The 2020 census is the first in history designed to be conducted mainly online, by heads of households on personal computers, meaning it’s better suited for the pandemic. Still, the coronavirus crisis has hobbled the field operations necessary to reach many minority populations, groups in remote areas, transient populations and in the case of Puerto Rico, the entirety of the United States’s most populous territory.

That’s brought the administration and House Democrats to a point of relative agreement, as the administration’s request for more time for the census is included in the latest House coronavirus relief proposal, albeit with some caveats.

The bill would allot an extra $400 million to the Census Bureau to deal with pandemic-related delays, and extend deadlines for the agency to provide congressional apportionment data and map-making information to the states.

The new deadlines would conflict with local elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

But the Democratic plan would also ban the Trump administration from using census information to build a dataset of citizens of voting age, a distinction that some argue is designed to exclude non-citizens from the census.

The Congressional Tri-Caucus — the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) — along with the Congressional Native American Caucus wrote Wednesday to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham asking him to attend a telebriefing, and to respond how the bureau will undertake a series of actions designed to increase minority participation.

“The pandemic has since then added unprecedented barriers to the enumeration of all Americans and early analysis of the response rates of the 2020 census show that these barriers are disproportionally impacting communities of color and immigrant communities,” wrote the group of Democrats — CHC Chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro (Texas), CBC Chairwoman Rep. Karen Bass (Calif.), CAPAC Chairwoman Rep. Judy Chu (Calif.), Congressional Native American Caucus Co-Chairwoman Rep. Deb Haaland (N.M.) and CBC Census 2020 Task Force Chairman Rep. Steven Horsford (Nev.).

While the need to extend deadlines and increase funding for the census is a rare point of bipartisan agreement, the proposal is currently entwined within a House bill that is almost certain not to become law.

The effects of the stunted census are clearest in Puerto Rico, where the entire exercise was still planned on paper, rather than moving online with the rest of the country.

Without increased funding for the field operations necessary to safely distribute census forms to the territory’s nearly 3.2 million inhabitants, there’s a chance the census could fail its constitutional duty to count every individual in the country.

“Frankly, I think Puerto Rico is the canary [in the coal mine],” said Vargas.

“Because if the Census Bureau is unable to resume field operations, then this census is done, and it’s not going to be able to be completed,” he added.

Tags Deb Haaland Filemon Vela Joaquin Castro Judy Chu Karen Bass Steven Horsford

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