SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – The City of Pharr believes it has found a novel way of getting an accurate census count next year – utilizing the technology skills of school students.

Cindy Garza-Reyes handles state and federal priorities for Pharr, along with special projects such as Census 2020 outreach.

Garza-Reyes spoke about her city’s efforts to ensure a complete census count during a panel discussion at the Texas Border Coalition’s annual meeting, held at the Pearl South Padre Resort on South Padre Island.

She pointed out that Pharr includes three public school districts, two charter schools, and one private school.

“We are in a different environment to what we were ten years ago. As a city we acknowledge the value of our students in terms of how they are equipped when it comes to technology,” Garza-Reyes said.

“We are assuming that a lot of the count will be done through our student population. We are working with each school district to come up with collaborative ways to make sure that each family is counted through the student.”

Editor’s Note: The above podcast, edited by Rio Grande Guardian presenter Mario Muñoz, features the raw audio from a panel discussion on Census 2020. It was hosted by the Texas Border Coalition.

Another part of Pharr’s census outreach work will involve a “train the trainer” program. Garza-Reyes said. She said the program is still in the planning phase but the hope is that 250 parents across all the school districts in Pharr will become “advocators” for a comprehensive census count.

Garza-Reyes acknowledged that one area Pharr is going to have to hard in is South Pharr, otherwise known as Las Milpas, because so few residents have a broadband connection.

“South Pharr does not have wifi connection so we are looking at how we are going to work through that.” She said public and city buildings, along with schools will need to become the “hub” for census outreach work.

Sure you are sharing information, affect chip, medicaid, embedded housing, bilingual Garza-Reyes said resistance may be found among residents who might be loathe to share information about their family, and those who believe filling in the census form will negatively affect their opportunities of utilizing CHIP or Medicaid.

Garza-Reyes was one of four South Texas leaders to participate on a panel about census outreach work at the Texas Border Coalition meeting. The panel discussion was titled “Counting the Whole Number of Persons in Each State: 2020 Census Preparations in the Border Region.”

In addition to Garza-Reyes, the panel included Cameron County Clerk Sylvia Garza-Perez, who chairs her county’s complete count committee, Nestor Lopez, representing Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, and Albert Morales, who does outreach work for the U.S. Census Bureau in Hidalgo County.

LeRoy Cavazos-Reyna, senior manager of public affairs and communication at Coca Cola Southwest, moderated the panel discussion. He is a Texas Border Coalition board member.

In his remarks, Lopez said one of the biggest challenges Hidalgo County is going to face as it works to secure a complete census count is assuring residents that it is “safe” to fill out the census form. “A lot of people are hesitant to answer the census. A lot of people are hesitant in general with the government,” Lopez said.

Lopez said Hidalgo County was “severely undercounted” in the 2010 Census. To make sure that does not happen again, Lopez said, the county has formed a complete count committee and five subcommittees that are working with nonprofits, education institutions, the business community, government entities, and media outlets.

“We tried to jump ahead of this as much as we could,” Lopez said. “We have about 120 partners.”

Lopez said the Census Bureau has been “fantastic.” He said the federal agency wants to ensure that “what happened last time does not happen again.”

As well as being Cameron County Clerk, Garza-Perez serves as chair of her county’s complete count committee. She said that her group has been handing out pictures of a six-member family at events around the county, such as national night out celebrations and conjunto festivals.

Garza-Perez pointed out that much federal funding is tied to the population count. She said if one person in the family is not counted, $1,600 a year is lost in federal funding. If all six members of the family are not counted, $9,600 a year is lost. “That is $96,000 that your county loses (over a decade),” Garza-Perez said.

“In 2010, about ten of children under age five were not counted. For Cameron County being a very prominent population of people under the age of 25 and younger, young families are very important to this county,” Garza-Perez said.

“If we do not get the children counted in our county, we’re going to miss out on a lot of federal funding, especially for our school districts.”

Garza-Perez said she has taken national Census Bureau officials to Cameron County’s “hard to count” rural areas “so they can see the difficulty we are facing.” She said the county has multiple housing units where it might be difficult to count residents. “We are going to have to go behind one house and behind three or four houses to make sure families are identified.”

Morales, representing the Census Bureau, said it is important to work with school districts because, for example, Title 1 funding is tied to population numbers. “I hope we never see a day when a child goes home hungry because they were not able to get a free lunch at school. It is really critical we get engaged with the different educational institutions,” he said.

Moderator Cavazos-Reyna said one of the biggest problems communities along the border face is the rhetoric spewed out by the Trump administration. He said the administration has tried to “insert questions that should not matter in the census count.” This was a reference to efforts to add a citizenship question to the Census 2020 form. This effort was defeated in federal court.

LeRoy Cavazos-Reyna

Cavazos-Reyna said this has pushed a lot of border residents “into the shadows.”

“It is up to us as leaders to break through bureaucracies, to make sure people are educated and know about how they are not in the shadows and need to come out. Especially in South Texas. How are we going to delete the fear-mongering of this administration when it comes to having people counted?” Cavazos-Reyna asked.

Wrapping up the panel discussion, Cavazos-Reyna said it was imperative that “vulnerable communities” along the Texas-Mexico border “have a seat at the table.”