MCALLEN, RGV – Lawmakers from across the Rio Grande Valley say the region “dodged a bullet” when the Trump administration dropped plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census form.

If Valley residents had been asked their citizenship status, tens of thousands would not have completed the form, the elected officials say. A large undercount would have led to a reduction in federal funding and congressional representation, they say.

“Did we dodge a bullet with the citizenship question not being added to the census?   Absolutely,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar. 

Once the 2020 census is completed, legislators will draw new congressional boundaries based upon population changes. Cuellar said because Texas is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation in terms of population – much of the growth being fueled by Hispanics – it could be in line for two or three more members of Congress. 

“Such a question would have hit the the Valley hard. The Valley would have lost hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars if we had not counted everybody. For a high growth area like the Valley it would have been a disaster.”

“If the citizenship question had been on the census form we may have lost a congressional seat. Instead of gaining two or three seats in Congress, we could have lost one.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar

Some analysts have argued that the damage from the citizenship question has already been done. That some mixed status families may not complete the census form because of all the talk about a citizenship question. Cuellar said he hopes this is not the case.

“As an appropriator, I am going to sit down with the Census director very soon and say, by the way, you have got to make sure you send money down here for advertising purposes. I did this in 2010 and I want to make sure there is funding that comes down to the border and the Valley, for advertising, in English and Spanish.”

Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo. said he could not stress enough how important a full and accurate count of the Valley’s population is. 

“The biggest amount of money comes (from the federal government) through a formula based on population. That formula is going to be set for the next ten years. With a citizenship question we would have lost out for the next ten years. We have now got to work together as a team to ensure an accurate count.”

Colonia outreach

Congressman Vicente Gonzalez

Congressman Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen takes the same stance as Cuellar when it comes to the citizenship question.

“We are very happy that the administration dropped the plan to have a citizenship question. The purpose of a census is to count everybody, to know how many people we have in an area, not to know the citizenship or what country they come from,” Gonzalez said.

“I am very happy President Trump has agreed to do the right thing, to have a free and clear census. We need to assure the residents in our community that it is safe for them to fill out a census form, in fact the law requires us to do it and we need to have a count of every single person.”

Gonzalez said the studies he has seen show that for every ten thousand people who do not get counted, a region loses $150 million in federal resources over a ten year period. 

“So, it is vital that every single person gets counted. In fact, I intend to do outreach in colonias, small communities, to assure them that it is safe for them to fill out the Census document and be counted,” he said.

Gonzalez pointed out that he persuaded the U.S. Census Bureau to put a filed office in the Valley. He said he now wants to follow up with the bureau’s leadership to make sure they  “do their job properly” and count everybody.

“I want to bring in the mayors, the county judge, the county commissioners, our schools. This census outreach effort should be a community effort, to let everybody know it is important to be counted. To make sure that every federal dollar that we deserve is brought to our community.”

Asked if, as some have argued, that the damage over the citizenship question has already been done, Gonzalez said:

“I could see that possibility, especially among migrant families that have recently come to the United States. It is my job as a member of Congress in my district to continuously communicate, to have public service announcements to our community, assuring everyone that they can feel comfortable with filling out the form and being counted. It is important for us to know how many people live in our community. It impacts our representation at the state and federal level and more than anything it impacts federal appropriations for our district. I intend to have a very aggressive role in ensuring that everybody is counted.”

Asked what would have happened if the citizenship question had been on the census form, Gonzalez said: 

“I have seen a study that shows that something like 35 percent of Latinos will not fill out a form when a citizenship question is asked. That is very impactful, not only in terms of state and federal representation but in terms of federal dollars that will be spent in our community. It would have been very easy to lose representation in a state like Texas, with a high minority population. If 720,000 people are not counted, that is one congressional seat we lose. If a million and a half are not counted, that is two congressional seats. It would be very easy for that to happen.”

State legislative perspective

State Rep. Oscar Longoria

State Rep. Oscar Longoria of La Joya said there were efforts during the recent legislative session to get the State of Texas to fund a major a census outreach campaign. He said those efforts were led by U.S. Rep. Cesar Blanco of El Paso. Unfortunately, however, Blanco’s legislation was not supported by the state leadership and thus, zero dollars were allocated.

“Cesar was an activist for us on that issue. I think it is important for us in South Texas to make sure that folks understand how important the census is. There is strength in numbers and more important there is money in the numbers. The word needs to go out, when you see the census come around, that we get an accurate count, that folks participate. We need an accurate count so we get the funds we deserve,” Longoria said.

Asked if the Valley “dodged a bullet” by not have a citizenship question on the census form, Longoria said:

“Whenever you start talking about a citizenship question, folks get scared. We need to address how many folks are living in South Texas. I am glad that has been addressed. Anything that hurts an accurate count is bad.”

State Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg was also pleased the citizenship question was ditched.

“I have sent out emails and text messages to county commissioners and the county judge tell them how important it is that the county get involved with the census at a grassroots level. It is absolutely imperative,” Canale said. 

“The Trump administration has stoked fears of deportation, mass roundups. What that is going to do is foster an inaccurate count. It is absolutely pertinent to our funding formula that we get an accurate count so we are accurately represented in the United States House of Representatives.”

State Rep. Terry Canales

Canales said from infrastructure dollars to education dollars to agricultural money, so many programs involving the federal government are allocated on the basis of population.

“For the state of Texas to not focus on getting an accurate count was a dereliction of duty. To negate the fact of the importance of getting an accurate count and its effect on our economy is absolutely insane. It is imperative our county officials, our local officials, our city officials, our state officials all work together to ensure an accurate count and quell the fears of those who are undocumented because whether they are undocumented or not, that is not what the constitution provides. The constitution provides for a count, not a citizenship count.”

Canales said it stands to reason the border region had most to lose by having a citizenship question on the census form.

“Because of our proximity to Mexico and our geographical location, we will undoubtedly have a larger percentage of undocumented people and if those people are not counted because of a question on the census, it would have devastated us because our resources would be stretched,” Canales said.

“The count ensures the resources are allocated per capita. If there is not an accurate count, you do not get the amount you need, yet you are still having to service and provide for those people. That (citizenship) question could have devastated our region. The fact that it is not on there is a Godsend.”

Canales added: “It is imperative they (mixed status families) know this is not about a roundup, they are not getting deported, this is about the future of the region and calming those fears. The numbers we get from a miscount are absolutely devastating.”