WESLACO, RGV – The dilemma Rio Grande Valley leaders may find themselves in when advising residents what to do about a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form was on display at this week’s Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council monthly meeting.

Veronica Gonzales, UT-Rio Grande Valley’s representative on the LRGVDC board, said it is imperative residents be counted because federal funding and congressional representation for the Valley is at stake. But Eddy Gonzalez, another member of the board, said residents are hardly going to worry about the Valley getting federal funding if they believe answering the citizenship question would lead to deportation.

The LRGVDC, the official council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, met two days after U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced there would be a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form.

LRGVDC board members debated how they should respond. One possibility is to set up an ad hoc Census 2020 advisory committee to disseminate accurate census information to the 43 cities and counties represented by LRGVDC. LRGVDC executive director Ron Garza said this could be of great help to smaller communities.

Veronica Gonzales

Another possibility is to pass a resolution opposing the citizenship question. Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez pointed out that a handful of states have already announced plans to sue the federal government to stop the citizenship question being asked.

Martinez noted that the Valley, which has a large immigrant population, traditionally has been  undercounted. The fear of many LRGVDC board members is that the undercount in 2020 could be much worse than in previous decades. Thousands of Valley families could ignore the census, for fear that if they answer the citizenship question, undocumented family members could be deported.

If the Valley does not count every one of its residents, federal funding and congressional representation will drop.

Gonzales, a UTRGV vice president, asked Garza if census information is shared with other federal agencies. Garza responded that it is not. However, that does not mean immigrant families will be reassured.

Eddy Gonzalez

“We have to be clear, we are not siding one way or the other (on the citizenship question),” Gonzales said. “Not being counted is going to mean less funds for our region. It is going to mean less congressional representation. So, we take a position that, whether you are in favor of the question or not in favor of the question, you need to be counted. You need to fill it out.”

Eddy Gonzalez, an LRGVDC board member from Edcouch, said it is not that clear cut. Responding to Gonzales’ point, Gonzalez said:

“I understand all that (loss of federal funding) but when you get out into the real community, you think they are going to worry about how much money we are going to get, if they fear they are going to be deported?

“Money is not going to matter to them. (It will be) ‘hey, I am going to be deported. No way am I going to fill it in. That is what they are going to be thinking.

Ron Garza

“I understand. We are concerned about that (federal funding and congressional representation), of course we are, but (let’s face) reality. When we take that form to that person to have it signed, they don’t care. How do you make them understand? How do you get them to say, ‘hey, you know what, I’ll sign.’ The education part. That is where you have got to go. Forget talking about money. Forget it, it is not going to work.”

Introducing the subject of the 2020 Census, Garza said that historically there is always a low count in the Valley. “There are a lot of stakeholders that think this (citizenship question) will hurt our count. All censuses are very critical to the way they appropriate funds, so we can’t not get counted.”

Garza said he has talked to a couple of members of Congress and their staff about the citizenship question. “If this question goes in, there is more funding for ground counting resources. So at least there are some resources to properly educate the community.”

Garza said the citizenship question will likely be the 11th and last question on the census form. “It looks like it (the citizenship question) will be the last question. The fear is if that question is on there, people will not answer the head count question. You do not have to answer it (the citizenship question). You would still be counted if you answered the head count question. That is the most important question.

“But still, having the (citizenship) question makes you not want to answer the whole thing.”

Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez

Garza said the LRGVDC may want to take up a resolution on the issue of the citizenship question. “If we want to take a unified position, that is one way to do it.”

Garza was not impressed by the reason given for having a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

“They (the Department of Commerce) are citing a very technical aspect, they are putting this question in to prevent violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. If you really read Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the correlations are really thin. A resolution may be something we want to consider.”

Ad Hoc Census 2020 Advisory Committee

Making the case for an ad hoc census advisory committee, Garza said his office “has already found a little bit of miscommunication” on the part of some of the Valley’s smaller municipalities.

“One way to stay in front of that, and I have already spoken to folks at the U.S. Census Bureau, is we can create an ad hoc regional Census 2020 advisory committee just so we have a formal structure to ensure that everybody is getting educated and every jurisdiction is getting the information and technical expertise they need.” Garza said.

“Hidalgo County is doing a great job on it. Some cities are doing it in an individual way, but some of the smaller cities and smaller counties, such as Willacy, may be not have the technical expertise. One action, if we chose to take it could be to create an advisory committee around keeping communication on the forefront just during the census period. We are still going to facilitate a lot of that information but if you would like to formalize it you could do it as an advisory committee.”

Noting that four or five states have already sued the federal government over the citizenship question, Martinez, the Brownsville mayor, said: “If you are a legal resident of the United States but are not a United States citizen, that is probably going to create some drama. They are living here, legally, and they probably will not answer that question.”

Martinez said things could play out the same way they did with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. “People signed up and said, here is my address and here is my name. Now all these folks get targeted for deportation, right after the (DACA) executive order came about. I can see where a lot of people, no matter what we do, as much information as we get out there… we are going to be undercounted.”

LRGVDC chief Garza said that is why he was offering the suggestion of an ad hoc advisory committee.

“Right now they are doing training on Complete Count Committees. The Census Bureau will be here next week talking to several cities and counties about Complete Count Committees. But right now, they have only talked about formalizing five. We really need about 45, we need to immerse ourselves in the smaller communities,” Garza said.

“If we have an advisory committee, every jurisdiction has an identified representative, somebody from that city or county that we can relay information. It is really a conduit for the information, so what is transferred between the feds and us, everybody is getting the same information. But, we will still rely on cities to do a lot of the groundwork. But at least it can be a unified strategy.”

Gonzalez asked Garza if he was recommending an advisory committee. Garza responded:

“Here is where I think it will help. In our talks with the U.S. Census Bureau, they have already reached out to several (Valley) cities that have been identified at a federal level to be critical areas where they need some coordination. I think having an advisory committee for this would help us have a mechanism to say, you are potentially impacted for the entire region’s count, we need a designated representative. It would be all inclusive so that every city has a member identified.”

Gonzalez replied: “Then we should do it.”

Martinez agreed: “I think that is a great idea, Ron, to be honest with you. The more you think about it, we are always undercounted anyway, even with the best of efforts.”

Martinez suggested putting the issue of an ad hoc Census 2020 advisory committee on the agenda for next month’s meeting.

Editor’s Note: The main image shows a photo of a previous Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council board meeting, not the one on March 28, 2018, at which the 2020 Census was discussed.