SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – Although she did not say much about a citizenship question being added to the 2020 Census, U.S. Census Bureau assistant regional director Vicki McIntire, was asked for advice about it at a Texas Municipal League meeting.

Marco Sanchez, the mayor of Combes, asked McIntire what elected officials in the Rio Grande Valley should tell residents who are not documented.

“We, in this room, as public officials, we can encourage our non-citizens to be counted, without fear of being deported? Or are the people from the government coming to pick them up? Is the form going to have, what Mayor Darling said, citizenship questions or not?” Sanchez asked.

Combes Mayor Marco Sanchez

“I cannot answer for sure about the citizenship question,” McIntire responded. “As you know, the Secretary of Commerce told the Census Bureau that we had to add that question. So, we are under that direction and we implement what we are told to implement, at that level. Right now, it is in the hands of Congress on what is going to happen with the citizenship question.”

McIntire said her advice is that elected officials do ask all residents to fill in the census form.

“It is really important for elected officials and leaders to encourage everyone to participate. All of the Census data is only published in statistical format. It is never used to identify any single person. But, it takes the trusted leaders in the community to say it is safe to do this,” McIntire said.

TML’s Region 12 held its annual summer meeting at Schlitterbahn Beach Resort on South Padre Island last Thursday and Friday. One of the items on the agenda was the 2020 Census. Two Census Bureau officials spoke, McIntire and Blanca Ramirez-Salazar, a partnership specialist.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, who is president of TML’s Region 12, introduced McIntire. He said he was going to make a political statement that he knew McIntire would not be able to respond to. Darling said he did not understand why a citizenship question was being added to the 2020 Census if the data collected was not going to be used by any other federal agency.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling

“If someone says it is such a great idea, ask what the benefit is versus the detriment of undercount. If they answer that question, you have them call me up,” Darling told McIntire. “That is my political statement. I know you cannot say anything officially, but it is really serious thing, especially in Texas and especially the Valley.”

McIntire did not respond to Darling’s point and started her presentation as though he had not asked it.

More than two dozen states and cities are suing the Trump Administration over its decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Hidalgo and Cameron counties have joined the lawsuit. They argue that a citizenship question will deter non-citizens and their families, some of whom could be citizens, from answering the form. If there is a significant undercount, communities can lose congressional representation and federal funds.

In her presentation, McIntire acknowledged that Hidalgo County had the largest undercount in the 2010 Census.

“The Rio Grande Valley had the worst undercount of anywhere in the U.S. last time. How do we know that? We actually go back and redo the census. We list blocks and compare it to what is in the census. We knock on the door and say, how many people are living here, and compare it to the actual census form that was turned in. Then we know how good or bad we did the census,” McIntire said.

In her presentation, Ramirez-Salazar pointed to a census tract in Hidalgo County, Tract 240, which had a high non-responsiveness rate in 2010.

“There was a 33.6 percent unresponsiveness rate. We are going to pay attention to that. It might be the poverty rate. Foreign born is 20 percent. How are we going to reach that community? And what kind of messaging are we going to give out? Ramirez-Salazar said.

Ramirez-Salazar asked for “trusted voices” in the community to help the Census Bureau reach the hard-to-count areas.

“We need people to self-respond. We do not want to wait for people to be knocking on doors. We need to engage the grassroot organizations to reach out to those hard to count groups. We need the help of those trusted voices. You (TML members in the audience) are trusted in the communities. They are not going to know me or a lot of our staff. We do not need to be in front of the cameras. We do not need be on the radio. We are going to need you to do that.”

Vicki McIntire

In her presentation, McIntire explained how important the census is. She said Texas could gain three or four congressional seats because its population has grown.

“Potentially three or four seats for Texas and money to the states. About $675 billion is allocated to the states currently through federal funds based on Census numbers. That is $1,575 per person, in Texas,” McIntire said.

“Let’s take a family of four. If we miss that family, that $6,300 a year that is lost. Over ten years that is $63,000. Just for one family. So, the impact of missing people is tremendous. Our job is to make sure we get to everybody and to let them know how important it is that they are counted.”

McIntire said there will be three different self-response options available for the 2020 Census: using internet to fill in the form, picking up phone and talking to a live person, or filling out a paper form and sending it back. “If we have no response we will send somebody out to knock on the door, just as we did in 2010, so that we can get a count for that housing structure.”

In a Q&A session, McIntire responded to Hidalgo County having the largest undercount in 2010.

“Our job is to make sure the communities are involved now and that we are doing our part to ensure that that does not happen this time around,” McIntire said. “You can contest the count, but your population count will not ever permanently change. So, it is really important to get it right the first time.”

McIntire said the Census Bureau will have public advertising on social media and on TV commercials.

“But that just informs people. That does not get the trusted voices that you all are for people to actually want to fill out the census form. It is you guys, on the ground, the churches, the libraries, the schools, where people go and trust people that really will get people to respond to the census. For every community, it is different. That is why the communities need to be involved.”

McAllen Area Census Office

McIntire is responsible for 12 states. She said she will have 280 outreach people working for her, many of them in Texas. She said there will be 25 area offices in Texas and that she has just opened a “huge office” in Dallas that will be staffed by 25 people. She said most of the area offices will open in June 2019 and will close in September 2020. Census Day is April 1, 2020.

“In 27 months it is all over, so we have a fast train that is starting to move,” McIntire said. “We are going to be hiring a lot. We just posted a job in Hidalgo/Cameron County. We just interviewed somebody this week to do outreach and partnership work, to help engage the community.”

After her presentation, McIntire told the Rio Grande Guardian that the Census Bureau is determined to get a good count in the Rio Grande Valley in 2020. Given what happened in 2010, she said it is a top priority. She said area offices will be opened in McAllen and Laredo.

Meanwhile, Daniel Velez, a public relations officer for the Census Bureau has cleared up confusion over claims that Hidalgo County is getting its first field office for a census count. Many local census workers, such as Mary Lou Cavazos, remember Hidalgo County having such an office in Edinburg in 2010.

“In 2010 Starr/Hidalgo County had a local census office and Cameron/Willacy County had their own local census office. In 2020 those four counties will be grouped together and represented by one Area Census Office (ACO). The Area Census Offices will oversee field operations for the 2020 Census including data collection and follow-up activities with non-responding households,” Velez said.

“The U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to begin opening 40 ACO’s around the nation by January 2019. However, the Hidalgo County-Cameron ACO will open during the second wave starting July 2019. We currently do not have staffing numbers for the Hidalgo County-Cameron ACO.

“Texas will have 26 ACO’s and there will be a total of 248 ACO’s across the country compared to 494 in 2010.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows attendees at a Texas Municipal League Region 12 annual summer meeting at the Schlitterbahn Beach Resort on South Padre Island. The meeting was held Thursday, May 10, and Friday, May 11, 2018.