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EDINBURG, RGV – Veteran civil rights attorney Rolando Rios says Hidalgo, Cameron, and El Paso counties are taking a leadership role where Texas won’t when it comes to protecting the rights of Latinos.

The three border counties have filed a lawsuit against the federal government to stop a citizenship question being added to the 2020 Census form. If the question is added many Latino families will not fill out the form, Rios predicted, leaving heavily Latino communities without its proper legislative clout and without the federal funding it warrants. 

“Of course, we are proud (of Hidalgo, Cameron, and El Paso counties),” Rios said. “They are taking the leadership that Texas won’t. We have a governor and a lieutenant governor and an attorney general that don’t care about the fact that we will lose congressional districts and billions of dollars if the citizenship question is in there.”

Rios is representing Cameron and Hidalgo counties in the lawsuit, which is being heard by United States District Judge Jesse M. Furman in the Southern District of New York.

“In Texas, it is only us (Hidalgo and Cameron) and El Paso. We have California, we have Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Latinos are everywhere. Several (Texas) Democrats have told me if they get elected statewide, they are going to join the lawsuit on behalf of Texas,” Rios said.

Rios gave an exclusive interview to the Rio Grande Guardian at a recent Hidalgo County Commissioners Court meeting. The census lawsuit was on the agenda in executive session. Rios could not talk about what was being discussed in executive session but was happy to explain the status of the lawsuit generally.

“We were able to uncover the fact that the administration tried to lie to the court about why they put the citizenship question on the form. Originally, they said they put it on the form because the Justice Department asked them to put it on the form. That, ‘we were just doing what the Justice Department told us.’ But, when we reviewed the record we knew there were some discussions going on before that and it turned out that on the 21st of June, just a month ago, Secretary Ross admitted that the reason the Justice Department asked them to put the citizenship question on the form is because he told them to do it.”

Wilbur Ross is Secretary of Commerce in the Trump administration. The Department of Commerce oversees the Census Bureau.

Rios said the revelation that Ross got the Department of Justice to put the citizenship question on the census form shows that politics is at play. “The person that did this was a political appointee. The judge got upset and so he is making them (the federal government) reveal the whole record and we are going to go to trial before the end of the year,” Rios said.

Rios pointed out that Census forms start to get printed in June, 2019. “We have to finish the case, get it to appeal, to the Supreme Court and down before next June,” Rios said, explaining the urgency of the case.

Rios, who is based in San Antonio, has represented heavily Latino communities in redistricting cases since 1990. He said his speciality in protecting Latino voting rights fits in with protecting the U.S. Constitution.

“We have 80 to 90 percent Latinos (in Hidalgo and Cameron counties). The Constitution of the United States will be compromised if you put the citizenship question on the form. The Constitution says the federal government must innumerate and count every person. You put the citizenship question on there, they are not going to be counting everybody. Accuracy will be compromised. That is why we filed the lawsuit.”

Rios said census data is the “gold standard” when it comes to federal courts determining federal political power and federal funds. 

“It is the gold standard. If we put the citizenship question on the form, the Census count not going to be accurate. You are going to undercount Latinos and they are going to lose political power and funding,” Rios said.

Rios said when the case gets to court he will have an expert witness that will confirm that Latino families will give the census a miss, should the citizenship question be asked.

“We hired an expert who said if you put the citizenship question on there, people will not fill out the form. People will only fill out forms from the federal government if they trust the federal government and the issue of trust has been compromised in the past year with all this hysteria against immigrants,” Rios said.

Rios said this is particularly true in a heavily Latino community like the Rio Grande Valley, where so many families are mixed status, meaning they have undocumented and citizen persons under the same roof. “These families will be afraid. They will say, ‘what if my uncle gets deported? Let’s just ignore it’.”

Rios said the good news for Latino communities is Judge Furman is “aware of the importance of the issue” and he is going to go to trial. “He is a Harvard Law graduate, he was an Obama appointee, who sits is in the New York Southern District. I have been up there for a couple of hearings already. It is exciting. We are not there alone. There are 15 states, the league of cities, the league of mayors, they are all involved in the case because it is so important.”

Rios concluded his interview by giving a couple of examples of how the Trump administration is “vicious” towards Latino communities.

“In Los Angeles, the city wanted to get a sense of how many non-citizens they have. They employed a surveyor to ask people if they were citizens or not. The Trump Administration filed a lawsuit to stop them from asking that question because under federal law the question of immigration is exclusively left to the federal government. So, they filed a lawsuit to enjoin them from doing that.”

Rios’ second example involved the citizenship question itself.

“I have been doing redistricting for 40 years. 1990, 2000, 2010, and now 2020. Every decade, the Right Wing sues the federal government, the census people, because they say, ‘you need to ask the citizenship question.’ Every decade, the federal government has said no. This is the first time in 40 years where the federal government has said, we are going to put the citizenship question on the form. It is because of the Trump Administration.”

Rios said every election has consequences and the possibility of the citizenship question being on the 2020 Census form is evidence of that. 

“That is why it is so important to vote. I think we are going to get this (citizenship question) struck down. We have a good judge, we have a good issue. It will go to the Supreme Court and who knows what will happen. I think this is the type of issue that is so important. Census data is the crown jewell and I don’t think even the Supreme Court justices are going to want to sacrifice accuracy because resources are determined by this. I think this will be a good issue but you never know.”

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