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Amid pandemic, census participation continues to be encouraged

When the four county judges of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy met for a joint meeting to discuss the increase of COVID-19 cases across the Valley two weeks ago, they broached a topic that was their priority at the beginning of the year before the pandemic arrived: the 2020 Census.

“We had several meetings in preparation for the 2020 Census,” Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr. said at the June 11 meeting. “We had a game plan with organizations, community involvement, everybody engaged and ready to go and just when we were about to hit, COVID-19 happened.”

Members of La Union del Pueblo Entero assist a Mercedes man in completing the 2020 census during an outreach event at Sunrise Hill Park in Mercedes Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Courtesy photo.

As of press time Wednesday, the National Response Rate for the census stands at 61.7 percent while Texas’ response rate stands at 56.4 percent. The 2010 Census had a response rate of 64.4 percent for the entire state.

Hidalgo County’s response rate stands at 45.5 percent, Cameron County has a 44.1 percent response rate, Starr County has a 36.9 percent response rate and Willacy is seeing a 33.8 response rate, according to the census website.

“Each of us know the importance that the Valley has lost out on hundreds of millions, if not, billions of dollars over the last several decades because we have not been counted properly,” Treviño, Jr. said.

The 2020 Census marks the first time in the census’ history that it would be done digitally, with the U.S. Census Bureau mailing out letters instructing citizens on how to fill out the census online last March.

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly brought the world to a standstill and the deadline to complete the census was extended to October 31, 2020.

“In comparison to the other counties we’re doing OK, but 45 percent is 45 percent and we would like to see that number  a lot higher,” Nestor Lopez, a county economic development analyst who leads the Hidalgo Census Count Committee said of the Hidalgo County response rate. “We have unique challenges in this area such as a large amount of small rural areas with PO boxes that the census committee isn’t sending information out to who haven’t received the marketing, we’re trying to target them.”

Among the many ways the county is targeting people into completing the census is their Friday Night Lights initiative, which rolled out last May.

The initiative pits high schools against each other every week as they battle to see which has the stronger response rate based on the response rate of the city the district is in.

“It’s a response to our inability to be out in the community because of the pandemic so we are promoting census questionnaire competition,” Lopez said. We were able to identify the response rate of school districts and continue to monitor them as time progresses. The response to this has been great from everyone and that’s all we’re trying to do, promote the census in a friendly way while scratching that itch for friendly competitions we haven’t seen from schools.” 

The local non-profit La Union del Pueblo Entero is also finding ways to promote the census.

On Monday and Tuesday, LUPE partnered with the local division of the U.S. Census Bureau to hold two census response events to invite people in Donna and Mercedes to complete the census.

The events had LUPE officials helping people respond to the census while maintaining social distancing guidelines. Held near the Lucero del Norte and San Joaquin colonias, they attracted about 40 families per day to fill out the census, according to a LUPE official. 

“That’s 160 people that got counted in this community. We know that for every person counted it’s close to $15,000 in funding for our region so these communities are easily seeing an additional $240,000,” Abraham Diaz, an education specialist who oversaw the outreach events said. “We are working with colonias to let them know of the importance of the census and let them engage with their own neighbors to ensure they get counted.  In these remote areas, many of these people don’t have proper internet service, let alone phone service to do the census by phone, so we are doing something about it.”

Lopez praised outreach events from organizations such as LUPE for their efforts in driving up response rates.

“It’s extremely important, we’ve seen that it is effective, and I hope they continue to do that,” Lopez said. “We all need to work together to promote this census and a response. Everything is uncertain because of COVID so this and social media are our biggest tools at our disposal.”

Diaz said LUPE is planning another outreach event in the coming weeks in Cameron County.

“We are encouraging people to fill the census to ensure the county gets the funding it deserves,” Diaz said. “Throughout the years we’ve been fighting for resources like better infrastructure and one of the most common responses we hear is ‘we have no funding.’ This is because people didn’t count themselves in the 2010 census. Now we’re doing our part to change that.”

Starr County is also using social media at their disposal to promote the census.

According to Cynthia Fuentes, a spokeswoman for Starr County and the Starr County Census Complete Count Census Chair, the county was planning several outreach events to promote the census prior to the pandemic arriving in Starr County.

“We want to encourage people not to be congregating but that’s what you would want for a census,” Fuentes said. “So right now we are trying to avoid any contact of any sort and have been able to get some of our numbers up.”

According to Fuentes, the county has been publishing social media posts reminding people to complete the census. Since the county reopened their public buildings, the county has allowed a handful of people at a time at their county office building and at their two county libraries to go online and complete the census.

“We were planning to hold census outreach meetings to invite the community to come over to help them complete the census but right now, we’ve had so many people testing positive for COVID-19 so that’s taken a backseat and we’re trying to keep the community safe and encouraging them to stay indoors,” Fuentes said. “Our numbers have been going up and they’re nowhere close to where we want them to be, but we are working everyday.”

Fuentes said the county is distributing information on the census every day during their drive-thru food pantry. 

“We have limited resources in funding and if we want better access to resources, you have to have the numbers,” Fuentes said of the census.

To complete the census, go to 2020census.gov/ or call 844-330-2020.

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