LA FERIA, Texas – In five Census 2020 outreach events over the past week, Cameron County leaders have persuaded drivers and passengers in 748 vehicles to participate in the count.

What may have drawn local residents to the events was the prospect of a free barbecue plate, courtesy of Noble Texas Builders. Without leaving their car, drivers and passengers have provided the information the census form requires to census workers and then driven up and picked up their hot meal.

“We are happy to be here, to be part of the census effort,” said Ramiro Garza, of Noble Texas Builders. “For us it is about giving back. We know how important this is.”

The five events have taken place at Port Isabel, San Benito, Santa Rosa, La Feria and Cameron Park in Brownsville. Garza said these five communities were chosen because they have thus far been low-performing communities when it comes to census participation.

“These kind of events are helping boost visibility. To see the city leaders and the school leaders here, it helps bring the community together,” Garza said, during the La Feria event. “We cannot do this alone. It is all about partnerships, the city, the school district, the county, they are really driving this.”

Of the five events thus far, Cameron Park has been the most productive, Garza said. “We had a huge turnout in Cameron Park: 240 cars,” he said.

The next census event is slated to take place in Rio Hondo next Thursday. Other possible locations for the outreach work include the Southmost region of Brownsville and San Pedro.

Currently, the 2020 census count program is in the self-response phase. This will continue until Sept. 30. The self-response rate for Texas as a whole is 60.1 percent. The percentage for La Feria is a pitiful 31.7 percent. 

“We want to make sure we get counted. It is so important for securing federal funding,” said La Feria Mayor Olga Maldonado.

Asked why her community had such a poor self-response rate, Maldonado gave a number of reasons. One has been the coronavirus pandemic, with less people paying attention to the once-a-decade count, she said. Another has been a lack of communication in hard-to-count areas, the mayor believes. And another has been the fear among mixed-immigrant status families that filling in the census form could lead to deportation.

“Some people are scared because they are undocumented. What we are telling them is, it doesn’t matter what your status is. If you live here, we have to service you. If we count you, we all get more resources.”

Asked about President Trump’s recent memo instructing the Census Bureau not to include undocumented immigrants when the agency finalists the numbers, Maldonado said: “It’s unfortunate he made that remark.”

Maldonado also said it is unfortunate that there is only one month left to count everybody. The self-response rate was to have ended on Oct. 31 but the Census Bureau decided to move the deadline up a month. “We are asking the federal government to give us a little bit more time. Our numbers are very low. We need more time to promote this.”

Another participant at the La Feria outreach event was Cameron County Clerk Sylvia Garza-Perez.

“We are doing whatever it takes to get people to participate in the census, which is vitally important to Cameron County and the entire Rio Grande Valley,” Garza-Perez told The Rio Grande Guardian.

“We had a severe undercount in 2010 and as a result we lost about $22.8 million in federal funding.”

Currently, Cameron County’s self-response rate is 48.9 percent.

Asked what would happen if Cameron County did not meet its target during the self-response rate period, Garza-Perez  said:

“If we come out below the 56.4 percent that we recorded in 2010 we are not going to be able to appeal that because that means not many people participated. We only appeal in areas where we know for a fact that there was either a percentage that was calculated wrong in households or where we know that the percentage of population is less than what they (the Census Bureau) are counting on. If we come under what we did in 2010 there is no way to appeal that.”

That terrible scenario could be averted if the federal government decides to make an adjustment across the country, Garza-Perez said. “I doubt that is going to happen with the current administration. We have to come in at least at 56 percent or higher if we can. It would be great if we got to 60 percent because that would equate to being higher than we were last time.”

The 2010 Census pegged Cameron County’s population at 406,220. The Census Bureau estimates that number had increased to 423,163 by July 1, 2019. County leaders believe the true figure to be above 500,000.

“If our population gets to 500,000 we become a metropolitan county. As you well know, when they distributed the CARES Act money, Hidalgo County got $110 per person and Cameron County got $55 per person. That is because we came in below 500,000. If we had been classified as a metropolitan county, we would have received far more in CARES Act funding,” Garza-Perez said.

Garza-Perez said the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the county’s census outreach efforts. “It has really thrown a left and right curve to us. We had a lot of good plans and all those plans had to be readjusted, redone.”

The county clerk added: “There is a big opportunity here. There is a lot to lose. There is a lot at stake. Please fill out your census form.”

At the La Feria event, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., helped deliver barbecue plates to those who had filled out the census form. 

“We are trying so hard to play catch up because we know we are behind. It is so important for the county, for each municipality in the county, and for the entire Valley,” Treviño told The Rio Grande Guardian.

Treviño stressed that achieving a full and accurate census count is in the best interests of all Texans. 

“I was in a meeting with Senator Cornyn a few weeks ago. I told him, this is not a Democrat or Republican issue. I said all of Texas needs to get counted because, God forbid, what would happen if our numbers drop this year and so far they are. We could actually lose a congressional seat You are not going to tell me Texas has not grown in population.”

Treviño said there is no question the Valley’s population has been going up. But, thus far, the 2020 census count is not reflecting this.

“We know the Valley is booming in population. We need the resources, we are just asking for our fair share.”

Treviño also thanked those who had driven out to the various census outreach events. “The benefits of their action will be long-felt, over the next ten years.”

Asked how his efforts were going to get the Sept. 30 self-response deadline pushed back to Oct. 31, Treviño said: 

“I am having a meeting with Senator Cruz later this week. We will continue to push. I hope the federal government will listen to us. We all need to be on the same page. We need everybody to be counted. I hope the federal government will rescind it’s earlier decision and go back to the earlier date, or even to the end of the year. That would be even better.”

Treviño was then asked a hypothetical question by a reporter. What happens if Cameron County’s self-response rate does not get much above 55 percent? Would the Census Bureau make an adjustment?

“If we know there is 30 percent missing, we have to go and find them. It is so, so hard, to get people engaged. The pandemic has affected us and I know there is a fear factor involved. We hope we can address it. The administration has done its job in trying to scare people from responding and I think that has ended up hurting us.”

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