EDINBURG, RGV – During Census 2010, around 30 percent of colonia residents in Hidalgo County were not counted, according to estimates.

A leader with La Unión del Pueblo Entero says that percentage could be higher in 2020 because there is more fear in the community than there was ten years ago. 

“People have always been afraid of the government but this year the fear is even greater,” said LUPE community organizer Martha Sanchez.

Asked why the fear is there, Sanchez said: “Because of all the anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican rhetoric coming out of Washington. It is going to be our biggest challenge, overcoming those fears.”

Asked to elaborate, Sanchez said: “Our people feel there is war against immigrants and people of color. That we are not wanted here. We have border walls, we have the separation of families, It is super scary for the people that live here. There is zero trust in the government. How do we overcome this huge barrier?”

Sanchez gave her views in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM following a news conference about Census 2020 hosted by Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez. At the news conference, Hidalgo County’s outreach marketing campaign name for the 2020 Census was unveiled. It is United We Count/Unidos Contamos.

Sanchez was a key player in LUPE’s efforts to count colonia residents in 2010. She remembers the challenge of getting families to open their doors to Census Bureau enumerators who were not Hispanic and did not come from the Valley. 

“We believe there were about 30 percent of colonias residents who were not counted nine years ago. Some of our families believed babies did not count, that only children of school children needed to be counted. We have to tell our people that everybody, as long as they are breathing, need to be counted.”

The Trump administration wants to have a citizenship question added to the Census 2020 questionnaire. LUPE is one of the groups challenging the need for that question in federal court. But, even if the citizenship question is removed, groups like LUPE have big challenges. 

“We are telling our members that if they are counted there will be a greater chance of getting more federal dollars, for street lights, for drainage, for parks,” Sanchez said.

“But, we have to convince them that President Trump is not going to have access to the information on the census. That he can do no harm to them. That is the conversation we need to have.”

One idea LUPE has is to develop a bingo game that will serve to educate its members on the importance of the census. “Our people love bingo. So, we have created a bingo game that is related to the census.”

LUPE is also working with many other groups in Hidalgo County to help educate colonia residents on the importance of filling out the census form. 

“I want to thank Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez for making Census 2020 a top priority. We plan to work with the county and other groups on this important issue. I think the school districts are going to be so important. They need to reinforce the message that filling out the form is okay, especially in this climate of fear.”

Sanchez noted that getting a full and accurate census count in Hidalgo County’s colonias is important because they are growing so fast.

“There is fast growth in places like Alton and Edinburg. Also Precinct One, in the eastern part of the county. Every time we come to commissioners court we learn of a new colonia popping up. It is huge.”

Asked what percentage of Hidalgo County residents live in colonias, Sanchez said: “We do not know for sure, maybe a third of the population, maybe higher.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez’s viewpoint

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, Judge Cortez said he believes Hidalgo County’s population now stands at 1.2 million. The challenge, he said, is making sure the census figures reflect those numbers.

Cortez has convened a coalition to develop a strategy to ensure that all Hidalgo County residents are counted. Members of the coalition include mayors and city representatives, members of congress, non-profit entities such as the RGV Equal Voice Network, LUPE, ARISE and the region’s official council of government, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (LRGVDC).

Cortez said Hidalgo County’s efforts to count all residents in 2020 has been helped by a Census Bureau software tool called LUCA. LUCA stands for Local Update of Census Addresses Operation. It provides an opportunity for municipalities to review and comment on the Census Bureau’s address list for its jurisdiction prior to the 2020 Census. 

Utilizing LUCA and working with LRGVDC and Hidalgo County Planning Department, Cortez’s office has been able to add 9,225 addresses, correct 2,428 addresses, and delete 2,566 addresses.

Asked how many Hidalgo County residents were likely not counted in the 2010 Census, Cortez said: “I think at a minimum we were undercounted by 20 percent. It could have been as high as 30 percent.”

In his remarks at the news conference, Cortez thanked LUPE’s Sanchez for her passion on the subject of getting colonia residents counted. Asked if Sanchez was correct,  that anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican rhetoric could make people less inclined to fill out a census form, Cortez said: 

“I totally agree with that. If you ask the Food Bank, if you ask the staff who service people going for healthcare services, their numbers are dropping. That tells us people are afraid to come out of their homes. They are afraid of the government and it is a serious problem for us.”

Cortez said one of his top goals as county judge is to get people out of poverty. “We have get people healthy, to get them with a skills-set. That is why this census is so important. We need to get our fair share of funding. The government’s scare tactics, of doing this or that, does not help.” 

Cortez acknowledged Hidalgo County has a challenge on its hands to get a full and accurate census count. 

“You can talk to a family about the census and they will say, everything you say is fine and dandy. But, hey, I cannot afford to be deported, therefore I am not going to take any chances.

“If they fail to get medical attention or even food sometimes, because they are afraid of being deported, that is how serious it is for them.”

Cortez added: “What made America great is we cared about one another. I would like to go back to that America.”