EDINBURG, RGV – The key issue for the Rio Grande Valley in the getting an accurate count during Census 2020 will be reassuring residents that Border Patrol will not be involved.

This is the view of Starr County Judge Eloy Vera. Vera was one of four panelists to speak at a “Rio Grande Valley Census Forum” public affairs luncheon hosted by Edinburg Chamber of Commerce. 

Vera made his concerns known when responding to a question from moderator Veronica Gonzales. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley vice president asked Vera how dependent Starr County was on federal programs whose funding is based on population.

“Unfortunately, Starr County has a lot of need for these programs but we try and count every single individual that we can,” Vera responded. “But, it is hard to convince them that, if they answer the questionnaire or the census, that Border Patrol won’t be knocking on their door the next day. That needs to be conveyed somehow and they need to believe that in order for us to have the numbers that we need.”

Interviewed by the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, Vera reinforced his concerns about Starr County residents not responding to census workers, especially if they are not from the Valley.

“Our people are not going to open their doors. We could end up with the same problem we had ten years ago,” Vera said, referring to the huge undercount in 2010 Census.

“The last census said our population was 64,000. I believe there was a 30 percent undercount and our population is nearer to 100,000,” Vera said.

Asked about plans by the Census Bureau to get people to respond to their once-a-decade questionnaire online, Vera said: “That is going to hurt us even more because a lot of our people are not computer literate. The only place we have is our public libraries. Our people will need help. If we leave them on their own they are not going to do it (fill in the form).”

The other panelists to speak at the forum were Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, and Willacy County Commissioner Eduardo Gonzales, standing in for Willacy County Judge Aurelio “Keeter” Guerra.

Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina welcomed attendees to the forum, which was held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance. Molina said it was vital the Valley was counted accurately during Census 2020. He ran through some of the things census data is used for.

“The census isn’t just another survey. The information collected in the census will determine how many representatives our state gets in Congress and how much money our area will get from the federal government for things like new schools, new roads, and health services,” Molina said. 

“The census will help determine which areas are eligible for housing assistance. The numbers will determine how much funding we will get for food stamps, free lunch programs and children’s insurance.”

Molina pointed out that businesses use census data when determining where to relocate. And he said that in 2020 it will be easier than ever to participate in the census. 

“For the first time ever you will be able to respond to the census by phone, by mail or online. We want to let everyone know that your information is confidential. It is important you respond and every person living in your home is counted. Spread the message. We need everyone’s help right now.”

The other three panelists were just as concerned as Starr County’s Vera.

Judge Treviño said 2020 provides the Valley with an opportunity to “rectify past mistakes.” He explained: “For decades the Valley has been undercounted. I am proud to say that Hidalgo County and ourselves, Cameron County, got involved in litigation to address the citizenship question. This was an attempt by the administration to make sure that the undercount that occurred in past decades will continue in the future.”

Treviño said “too much is at stake” with regards to the future of the Valley and the future of its youth. “We lost out on billions and hundreds of millions of dollars over the years and we need to make sure that does not continue,” he said.

Treviño said if people do not fill out the census questionnaire via a telephone call or online, the Census Bureau will revert to paper documentation. 

“We need to get out there with regard to political leaders, community leaders, religious leaders, educational leaders. Every possible group, we are going to need that type of commitment from everybody to make sure everybody gets involved, gets engaged and gets counted,” Trevino added.

“Access to the Internet, WiFi, is going to create a challenge to us in the Valley. We need to start working yesterday.”

Judge Cortez said the last census showed the United States grew a little less than ten percent, that Texas grew by 21 percent, and the Rio Grande Valley by 31 percent. He said Hidalgo County is using technology to view all the rooftops in the county. 

“We found 14,274 new addresses not previously listed. We found 15,968 incorrect addresses and we eliminated 5,152. That is a net of 25,000 addresses. In the last census there were 3.6 members per household. You do the math.”

Cortez said right now Hidalgo County is estimated to have a population of 860,661. 

“Based on the numbers we have, based on the number of households that should be counted, we should be at approximately 1.2 million. If you look at the mistakes, the undercount in the last census, we basically counted 74 percent of the people that were out there. That is a big error margin.”

Cortez said in preparation for Census 2020, Hidalgo County is forming partnerships with businesses, churches, non-profits and political subdivisions and “everybody we can.” He said everyone in the audience needs to get involved. “We have to tell all of our friends, all of our neighbors, everybody we come across, have you been counted?”

Cortez said part of the problem in 2010 was the Valley had people from outside of the area counting its residents. “People do not want to talk to people they do not know. We are being very proactive to make sure we are counted. The significance of the census affects us politically, economically and socially.”

In his remarks from the stage, Judge Vera said that as a rule, the people of Starr County are not very computer literate. 

“The City of Roma, our second largest city, lost population at the last census. Yet, the school district in Roma, in those same ten years. built three elementary schools and a middle school. You tell me where those kids came from,” Vera said.

Vera said the various cities in Starr County need to help. “This is not a county problem, it is an individual problem. We are the ones who are losing money. It takes money to operate and every dollar that is lost, every dollar that does not come in, guess where it comes from? From our taxpayers. It benefits all of us if we are all counted.”

Vera said trust is important in Starr County. “People they do not know, people from Dallas or Houston, they are not going to open the door. I think it is critical that the Census Bureau understands, you need to hire local people that know the neighborhoods, that will open the doors and open up to them and convince them this is nothing to do with whether you are a citizen or not. We need to promote that. The Rotary, Lion’s Club, it has got to be everyone.”

Commissioner Gonzales said Willacy County is blessed to have good Internet connectivity. However, being a largely rural community, there will be challenges. He said Willacy County will be working with faith-based organizations, non-profits, and mayors to get the word out about the importance of the census.

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, Gonzales said he is concerned that farmers and ranch hands could be missed when the census count is taken. “We needs lots of community events, to tell everyone about. There is a distrust factor.” 

Asked how big an undercount Willacy County suffered in 2010, Gonzales said: “We are quite small. We have a population of approximately 27,000. My guess is ten or 15 or 20 percent were undercounted.” 

Gonzales said he backed Cameron County and Hidalgo County in their litigation on the citizenship question. “We are the poorest county in Texas so we cannot be part of the lawsuit. But, we back our neighboring counties.”