Americans have been filling out census forms for months, but Hispanic and Latino communities worry about being undercounted. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau)
By Luciana Perez Uribe Guinassi
WASHINGTON — Elian Contreras started work in early August as a census taker in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
He helps with the “nonresponse followup,” which consists of interviewing in-person the residents of every household who did not respond to the 2020 Census either online, by phone or on paper. On most full-time workdays, Contreras will knock on 60 doors, receive multiple distrusting glances from community members and get less than seven people to fill out the census.
Despite the low response rate, Contreras pushes forward to earn his pay and because he said he’s “heavy on civic duty.”
He and others are concerned that COVID-19 will lead to an inaccurate count, especially for Hispanic and Latino households, who are often distrustful of the census.
“It’s 2020, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, a lot of people aren’t going to be counted,” Contreras told Capital News Service. “So, the more that I count people, the more people that are going to be represented, especially from communities that I come from.”
Contreras, a junior majoring in music composition at the University of Maryland, College Park, was born in the United States but embraces his Hispanic heritage.
Latino populations are “hard-to-count,” according to a 2018 research study conducted by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights organization.
Latinos are not only at higher risk of not being fully counted in the 2020 Census, but also have been undercounted by the U.S. Census Bureau for decades, the fund wrote. The Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University Law Center contributed to the report.
Today there are more than 56 million Hispanics living in the United States, and roughly a third live in hard-to-count areas. The main barriers to an accurate representation of Latino communities are language, poverty, education and immigration status, the fund found.
As of July 2015, Hispanics constituted 17.6% of the nation’s total population, making them the largest ethnic or racial minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That reality makes it “especially important to make sure that the 2020 Census fairly and accurately captures the growing Latino community,” the report said.
“We run the risk that Latino community most impacted by COVID might also be the ones to receive less funds for the next 10 years,” said Lizbette Escobedo, director of the National Census Program for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
An undercount has very real consequences for a community. The census occurs every 10 years and dictates how much federal funding a location will receive based on its population. The money pays for healthcare, job training, education and countless other federal programs.
Population data also is used to allocate seats and draw district lines for the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, and, in some cases, local governments.
The 2020 Census count was further hindered by COVID-19 when field operations were temporarily suspended in early March. This led to confusion and controversy as to when the count would wrap up.
In multiple reports released in early September, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, warned that states with an undercount of just 1% could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in funding unless deadlines were extended.
Amy Rivera, president of Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society, a student group at the University of Maryland, expressed concern that an undercount heightened by the pandemic could leave Hispanic and Latino populations with fewer resources and less funding during a time they’re needed most.
“This whole epidemic has made things more difficult,” Rivera said. “Now you don’t just worry about the count, you worry about spreading a very dangerous disease to a very vulnerable population.”
Census takers may be hesitant to knock on the doors of largely Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods because many individuals in this population have worked on the front lines of the pandemic and tend to have higher rates of infection, Rivera said. It has been widely reported that communities of color are being hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19.
As of now, the bureau is set to continue data collection operations through Oct. 31. The decision to conclude the count on this date follows a lengthy and winding legal fight.
To account for time lost during the suspension in March, the bureau in April extended the count through Oct. 31. But, shortly after, the bureau reversed plans and shortened its deadline to Sept. 30.
Local governments, civil rights groups and civic organizations filed a lawsuit — National Urban League et al. v. Wilbur L. Ross Jr. et al., — against the administration’s attempt to rush census operations.
On Sept. 24, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California required the bureau to once more extend the deadline, which was interpreted by many as reverting to Oct. 31.
Instead, the bureau announced a target date of Oct. 5, 2020. Last week, the federal judge said that this earlier deadline violated the original court order.
In the lawsuit, plaintiffs argued that a shorter timeline could lead to an undercount of minorities. The so-called “Rush Plan”, the Urban League argued, was meant to suppress the political power of communities of color by excluding undocumented people from the final apportionment count.
Apportionment is the process of using population data to allocate each state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Historically, new census data results in northern and eastern states losing congressional seats and southern and western states gaining seats – a reflection of higher population growth in those latter two regions.
In late July, President Donald Trump generated new controversy by releasing a memorandum pushing to exclude undocumented immigrants from census apportionment totals.
On Sept. 10, a special three-judge court in New York rejected the Trump administration’s plan.
The Census Bureau did not respond to multiple requests from CNS for comment.
The attempt to exclude illegal immigrants from the census count — as well as attempts in early March by the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to add a citizenship question to the census — heightened confidentiality concerns and left a lingering distrust for many Hispanic and Latino individuals, according to Escobedo.
“Having that incidence of the government trying to force people to put their (citizenship) status – that definitely caused a lot of people to be very distrustful, to break any type of trust in the government,” Rivera said.
Rivera, who identifies as Latinx, said that while the census form was relatively straightforward and easy to fill out, the real difficulty was appeasing her family’s distrust of the government, despite all being legally in the United States.
“When it comes to, I guess, trust between immigrants, and the government, there is none,” she said.
Rivera said she also had difficulties answering the race and ethnicity question.
This year, the census employed a two-tiered question for Hispanic and Latino individuals. It requires individuals to respond if they are Hispanic/Latino for the ethnicity question, and then fill out a subsequent question about their race.
In 2015, the Census Bureau conducted “The 2015 National Content Test.” The results indicated that a “combined question with detailed checkboxes” was the optimal format for the 2020 Census. But in 2018, the bureau announced that it would maintain the dual question format.
To portray a more accurate representation of the Latino and Hispanic population, the bureau must reevaluate the language used in its surveys for data collection on race and ethnicity, Escobedo said. Many people cannot find a proper race to identify with, as Latinos are often mixed, she explained.
“The very definition of what it means to be Hispanic or Latino is very subjective,” said Rivera. “It’s hard to box anybody into a category.”
Unable to find a race she identified with listed in the 2020 Census, Rivera said she decided to mark herself and her family as “other.”