By Carlos Morales
In one of the hardest-to-count corners of Texas, advocates pushing Census participation are running out of time.
Local officials are hoping to double the number of people in Presidio County who’ve been counted since March in less than two weeks. But mixed messages from the federal government—and coronavirus restrictions— have made it even harder for Census workers to get an accurate count.
“There’s still quite a bit that we’re trying to do,” said the U.S. Census Bureau’s Charlene McBride during a virtual update earlier this month.
The challenge ahead was clear when she asked the small group of Census advocates: “What can we do to make people participate more?”
It’s unclear at the moment when the U.S. Census Bureau will end the once-every-decade count. Earlier this month, a federal judge in California issued a temporary restraining order, pausing operations to wind down in-person counting efforts. The count was originally intended to end Oct. 31, but the Trump administration abruptly cut short response time by a month. A rescheduled hearing on the Census deadline is expected to be held next week.
Ensuring an accurate count in this rural corner of West Texas was always going to be a challenge, according to those involved in the national count. The Big Bend region is home to some of the hardest to count populations: people living in rural communities, low-income residents, communities of color and undocumented immigrants.
Of the state’s 254 counties, Presidio currently has one of the lowest household response rates at 26.2%.
“It’s an ambitious thing to double what we’ve been able to do in nine months, and now try to double that in two weeks,” said Peggy O’Brien, who leads local Census participation efforts with the Rio Grande Council of Governments.
For months, O’Brien has tried to reach residents through food distribution centers and grocery store parking lots. Since the pandemic canceled most of the community events—fish fries, block parties and school events—O’Brien was planning to attend, current outreach efforts have now focused on social media and newspaper ads to engage residents.
But with a closing window, O’Brien is ramping efforts to find more people, and thinking of new ways in touch with Presidio County residents.
Her group has reached out to area schools, asking them to contact parents. Big Bend Counties with reverse-911 alerts will send out reminder calls soon. And now, O’Brien is hoping to reach residents in the City of Presidio, which has one of the lowest response rates in the county.
Last Friday, O’Brien set up near the Presidio-Ojinaga Port of Entry to try and reach residents before they traveled across the border into Ojinaga. In about three hours, as traffic worked its way through the international port, O’Brien said she passed out informational packets to about 100 residents.
“We were just imparting information and telling them how they can fill out the census,” she said. “We just want to get as many (people) as possible.”
The current response rate for Presidio County households is well under the level reached during the 2010 U.S. Census when nearly 47% of households responded. To at least reach that level, Census workers and advocates will have to hear from nearly 550 households, according to the Texas Demographic Center.
“It’s been a challenge, but I think it can happen,” said Lila Valencia, a senior demographer at the Texas Demographic Center. “We’re hopeful it happens because that is the constitutional mandate—to count every single person that lives in the country.”
An undercount, which now seems all but guaranteed in this far-flung corner of the state, would have long-standing consequences since the national count is used to determine political representation and guide federal funding for the next 10 years.
During the last few national counts, officials throughout the tri-county area have said residents were missed and went uncounted. Officials offered anecdotal evidence and looked at utility hook-ups, which suggested larger populations than what the Census Bureau ended up recording.
Since field operations resumed in the summer, some 20 Census workers have been hired for the Big Bend region, going door-to-door to follow up with residents who have yet to respond.
“We’re not going to know how effective that part of the follow up is until everything’s said and done,” said O’Brien.
So, all she—and every Census worker in Far West Texas—can do is continue to try and convince as many people as possible that being counted in the 2020 Census is worth their time.