WESLACO, RGV – Unlike other local entities, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council is not, yet, weighing in on a citizenship question being added to the 2020 Census.

The LRGVDC, the official council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, voted Wednesday to form a Census 2020 Regional Task Force.

The task force will comprise cities, counties, grassroots groups and local business leaders and its first meeting will be held May 10. The U.S. Census Bureau will be in attendance.

Ron Garza, executive director of LRGVDC, acknowledged that many of the COG’s board members are concerned about a citizenship question being added to the 2020 Census form. The concern is that it will lead to a greater undercount because families that include undocumented residents will not fill out the form.

“There are concerns about that question. The stigma of having that question could affect results. We are already up against a lot of challenges. We do not want an additional barrier,” Garza told the Rio Grande Guardian, at the end of the LRGVDC meeting.

Ron Garza

“We decided, let’s do the task force first. We may or may not pass a resolution (on the subject of the citizenship question) in the future. I think the municipalities are doing a great job of addressing that. It is still unclear how that question will be formulated. So, we are in a wait and see mode. Our priority right now is making sure we get accurate information out there.”

Asked if LRGVDC board members, most of whom are elected officials, have concerns with a citizenship question being added to the 2020 Census form, Garza said: “Absolutely. There is concern there will be a misperception as to what that question means and will be used for.”

Garza added: “We do not want there to be undue fear. This is going to be a delicate balance between the cities, the grassroots organizations and private industry. I think private industry is going to be a large part of this. We need to use a grassroots community immersion technique. People who are most vulnerable to answering these questions need to hear from members of their own community, that this is safe to answer. We want to blend these resources together.”

During the LRGVDC meeting, Garza praised Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia for taking the lead in highlighting the importance of Census 2020. “I really want to commend Judge Garcia for really making this a priority,” Garza said.

Hidalgo County has created a webpage for Census 2020. The page points out the significance of the count.

“The upcoming 2020 Census enumeration process will directly impact and define our community for the next decade. Census Bureau figures are used for the appropriation of federal funds, the apportionment of US House of Representative seats, state legislature and other local entities representation. Additionally, Census Bureau figures are now commonly used by many in the public and private sector for business decisions that impact our future growth,” the website states.

Recently, the cities of Mission and McAllen have passed resolutions against a citizenship question being added to the 2020 Census. Hidalgo County Commissioners Court has gone even further. As well as passing a resolution in opposition to a citizenship question, the county has agreed to join a lawsuit to stop the question appearing on the 2020 form. Census and redistricting attorney Rolando Rios of San Antonio has been hired to represent the county in the lawsuit.

The decision to add a citizenship question was made by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. He said there is no evidence such a question will suppress the count.

“No one provided evidence that there are residents who would respond accurately to a decennial census that did not contain a citizenship question but would not respond if it did, although many believed that such residents had to exist,” Ross wrote in a memorandum related to his decision.

“While it is possible this belief is true, there is no information available to determine the number of people who would in fact not respond due to a citizenship question being added, and no one has identified any mechanism for making such a determination,” Ross said.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling is in no doubt a citizenship question will have a chilling effect on undocumented families. Darling is a member of the LRGVDC. He gave the Rio Grande Guardian an interview after Wednesday’s meeting had ended.

“They say this citizenship question cannot be used for any other purpose than the Census. If so, why are they doing it, except for political expediency? It does not do anything for the census. We are supposed to count people. That question does not count for anything if it is not going to be used by others,” Darling said.

“If 50 percent of the people here came here legally and overstayed their visa, that is the federal government’s responsibility. If they have not done their job, don’t take it out on local government. A lot of these families have kids. They are not going to report these kids. They are not going to report themselves. We are going to end up paying for them but we will not get credit for that.”

Darling said that for every thousand homes the Census Bureau does not count, that community can lose more than $10 million in financial aid over a ten-year period. “We are talking about tens of millions of dollars that are not going to come here for services we provide.”

Darling said the danger of having large swathes of the community not filling out the census form because of the citizenship question far outweighs any positive reason for including it.

Jim Darling

“You are hurting local government for the benefit of what? Our families are not going to fill the form out. They are not going to do it. There are a lot of mixed families. The politicians need to take a look at this, especially in the state of Texas, where the impact of this question will be felt more than in any other state, with the possible exception of California.”

Darling predicts that even some American families will not fill out the census form if it has a citizenship question.

“You have American citizens living in a home where there is a grandparent or someone who is not a citizen. They are not going to report that person. Why would they? Why would they let that (Census) person in the door?”

Darling said another concern he has is a decision by the Census Bureau to make greater use of the Internet to count residents.

“They want to do it over the Internet. Everyone is talking about 5G, we do not have 1G in a lot of our neighborhoods. The penetration of Internet service in our lower income neighborhoods is terrible. We cannot regulate that. We cannot regulate cable companies. It is going to be a real challenge to get the count right anyway. And then you throw the citizenship question into it – you are asking for a serious undercount.”

Darling added: “On the council of government, we are concerned that a lot of our colonia residents do not have addresses. We are working tirelessly to get those addresses. We have very unique challenges. Forget about Wi-Fi, we do not have addresses.”

Role of the Task Force

LRGVCD’s Garza said the Census 2020 Regional Task Force will come together at least once a quarter to produce, among other things, a regional calendar.

“We want to make sure everybody moves through the phases of the timeline together. So those entities that have less resources move along as well as the large ones and we put resources where we need them, that we share best practices. We have already coordinated with the U.S. Census Bureau for May 10th. They are willing to come down to be at the initial meeting of this task force. This task force will be all inclusive. A point of contact for all 43 cities, all counties and the categories of Census Complete Count committees, which includes the private sector and grassroots.”

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Garza said a lot of the work will be done by various Complete Count committees being set up by Valley cities and counties.

“They are the boots on the ground. Our task force will coordinate best practices, making sure there is no gap in technical assistance. We are going to be working closely with the U.S. Census Bureau. They will be here for the initial meeting on May 10. it is an informal platform to make sure everybody has got the right information.”

Garza said the Census Bureau has praised Rio Grande Valley entities for becoming active so early on the 2020 count.

“We are being very proactive and we are way ahead of the curve. I know Hidalgo County has had folks from across the nation call them to ask what they are doing. The Census Bureau has told us, you guys are really coordinating.”

Garza said it should come as no surprise that the Valley is being proactive because it has a lot at stake.

“We are putting together fact sheets and speaking points so all the members of our team – because this is a large team network – will put the same factual information out there. I am excited we are going to be part of this regional initiative. Hidalgo County has already initiated a website, so instead of replicating, we are going to use that as our regional platform.”

Garza added: “The Census Bureau will be releasing the 2020 logo and as a task force we will decide will we be going with that as branding or whether we want to look at something more specific for the task force. I think the most important thing we will be doing is developing a regional timeline on the different phases. We want to ensure everyone moves through those phases together, that no one entity is left behind. If there are certain cities that are not dedicating the necessary resources, we can work with them directly to increase that capacity. We cannot overstate the importance of this initiative.”