Cameron and Hidalgo counties have invested $100,000 to fund a survey asking county residents if they would be less inclined to fill out the 2020 census form if it asked about their citizenship status.
Since the survey was commissioned, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the question could not be on the form. However, the survey was justified before the court’s order and it still is.
Areas with high percentages of immigrants, such as the Rio Grande Valley, have long held that foreign-born residents historically are reluctant to participate in the census, even though it is mandated by law, for fear that the information might be used against them.
The U.S. Census Bureau, which already has such information, estimates that 27% of Hidalgo County residents and 24% of Cameron County residents were born in other countries.
Officials say lower participation rates among immigrants, and the resultant undercount, hurts the places where they live. Cities, counties — including those in the Valley — and entire states such as Texas, California and New York have challenged census numbers, alleging they were shortchanged by immigrant undercounts.
There’s a lot at stake. Billions in federal allocations are based on census numbers, and the Texas Demographic Center estimates that an undercount of just 1% can cost the state $300 million in federal funding.
That loss would mean less money for highways, hospitals and schools. Housing, social services and community block grants would be lower due to an undercount. This makes the local survey, and other efforts improve accuracy, worth the investment.
But it’s about more than money. The primary purpose of the census is to ensure fair and equal representation in government. Texas’ population growth in the past decade could bring two to four more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; at least one of those seats might be lost to an undercount.
Because much of that population growth is in South Texas, it could affect local representation. Longtime Valley residents might remember just a couple of decades ago the region had a single voice in Congress — although the late Rep. Eligio “Kika” de la Garza made sure that voice was heard. The region now has three representatives, although the districts now are drawn so that this area must compete with counties as far north as San Antonio for their representatives’ attention.
Local population growth also could mean another seat in the state legislature, further ensuring that Valley interests receive full consideration from lawmakers.
Fortunately, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, recently was named vice-chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, offering greater assurance that the region will receive fair treatment when legislative and congressional districts are redrawn.
But it all begins with an accurate census count. And if the survey helps officials take measures that increase the accuracy, the survey will serve its purpose.