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Coronavirus is newest threat to Latinos' census response, as groups pivot on outreach

In Texas, Latino-heavy neighborhoods are scrambling to ensure an accurate count as the pandemic prevents previously planned community outreach efforts.
Image: Signs for the 2020 U.S. Census on boarded up businesses in Seattle on March 23, 2020.
Signs for the 2020 U.S. Census on boarded up businesses in Seattle on March 23, 2020.Brian Snyder / Reuters

AUSTIN, Texas — Part of the plan for urging residents of the Dove Springs neighborhood to fill out census forms called for coaxing families at an Easter egg hunt, the soccer season opener, the César Chavez march and at the reopening of the recreation center.

Then came the coronavirus.

"At this point in time, everything's been canceled," said Jesus Becerra, who oversees social media for Contamos (We Count) Austin, part of the Austin-Travis County Complete Count Committee that is trying to improve residents' census response rates.

As the coronavirus had taken its toll, local officials, like others around the country, have been forced to pivot from planned in-person events that were crucial to improving census response rates in Latino communities like Dove Springs.

Situated in the southeast of high-tech, booming Austin, Dove Springs is a lower-income community, with a number of immigrant and multifamily households making it one of the hardest to count areas in the city.

George Morales, born and raised in Dove Springs, is a Travis County constable whose precinct includes his own neighborhood, which was wracked by flooding in 2013 and 2015. It's in need of drainage improvement and roadwork, Morales, who volunteers with Contamos Austin, said.

With a more accurate count, “imagine how much more money we get back and more fighting we can do as a community. We can have our parks taken care of, infrastructure, free lunches at school," he said. "I want what every other community has.”

There's worry, however, that following the citizenship question and the current situation, his community won't be accurately counted. Austin is under a stay-at-home order.

In recent decades, Latinos are among the nation's most undercounted groups. In 2010, Latinos numbered 50.5 million and were 16 percent of the population; the numbers are now estimated at 58 million and 18 percent.

“We’ve been working on this since last year to figure out a more accurate approach. The thing we were going— for sure — to use, was the actual grassroots effort, go out to communities, set up where people didn’t have online access, knock on doors,” Becerra said.

But in a new age of social distancing, their social media outreach efforts — such as a humorous telenovela, or soap opera, that his group commissioned have taken on a new importance.

In it, a mother’s prayers to see her daughter married are answered when a census enumerator shows up at her door to reassure her there's no citizenship question on the census — and declare his love for her daughter.

With the pandemic, "we got a bigger job," Becerra told NBC News.

Lingering fear, distrust

The coronavirus upheaval comes amid many challenges for getting robust Latino census responses, including President Donald Trump’s attempt to add the citizenship question.

The Supreme Court barred the question, but not before the threat of its inclusion struck fear in some Latino families, a fear that still lingers.

Nearly half of Latinos, many of them U.S. citizens, believed a citizenship question still would be asked on the census when they were surveyed in February 2019 by the National Association of Latino Appointed and Elected Officials, or NALEO.

"There's still a real fear and distrust in the Latino and immigrant communities toward the current administration and especially in Texas" where in 2017 Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law, SB4, giving police more leeway to question people about their citizenship and immigration status, Texas Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said.

Unlike California, which dedicated $187 million to counting its population, Texas’ Legislature refused to fund a state committee to get a more accurate statewide count.

“If Texas is undercounted, the bottom line is Texas loses,” said Blanco, whose legislation to fund the statewide committee failed to get legislative approval.

"Border communities such as Hidalgo County and El Paso County had the highest undercount rates in the 2010 census and there's great concern this trend is going to continue," he said.

'A big loss for us'

Aldine was one of the Houston suburbs hardest hit by heavy flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, a deadly Category 4 storm that hit the Texas and Louisiana coast in August 2017.

An unincorporated community near the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Aldine has experienced growth, where many Latino immigrant families live.

Bonding Against Adversity, which has worked in the community for a decade, formed a partnership with the school district and had been working since November to target areas of the community that had low census response rates.

The group did census presentations at schools every month and trained 120 “ambassadors” to raise awareness about the census. It tapped into large school events and there were plans to use the school library to help families with their forms. A company had offered 100 hot spots to allow other groups to help families without access to the internet.

“We were reaching at least 500 people a month and we were thinking it would be 1,000 people,” Sanchez told NBC News by phone.

The school district continues to serve free lunches while families shelter at home through the coronavirus crisis. But everything else is scrapped. The hot spots went instead to the company’s employees so their children could do schoolwork online.

Sanchez said since many families have no internet access, her group is distributing flyers with the free lunches to encourage families to use their time confined at home to complete the census by phone.

“It was a big loss for us,” Sanchez said. “Even though it is promoted in media and posters are everywhere, people have fear and don’t know exactly how it works. We have to explain to them to break that fear and empower them to go into the census.”

Paper forms should be arriving in mailboxes April 8-16. The Census Bureau also sent paper forms to areas it knows have limited internet access on its first mailing of notifications to Americans to complete their census, bureau spokesman Michael Cook said. He said the bureau is beginning to see good response rates in some hard-to-count areas.

The Census Bureau has moved the date by which it wanted census responses from July 31 to Aug. 14. Door-to-door knocking for nonresponders that was to begin April 13 was delayed until May 28.

A history of undercounts —and now coronavirus

The Census Bureau estimates about a 1.54 percent, or 777,359 Latinos, were undercounted or missed, in the 2010 census. NALEO and other Latino groups believe the number is larger.

Attorney José Garza, who represented the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives in lawsuits over the undercount, said the undercount in minority communities is closer to 3 percent to 5 percent and he projects it will be even higher in 2020 because of the health crisis and other turmoil.

Arturo Vargas, NALEO executive director, warned that the census expected it would need to send enumerators out to follow up with about 39 percent of Americans who did not fill out their census forms either online, by phone or mail.

A decade ago, three quarters of the country filled out and mailed in census forms, but about 47 million households failed to complete a form and were visited by census takers who attempt to get the forms filled out on a visit, according to the Census Bureau.

But with the coronavirus crisis, it's unclear when that will happen and whether the bureau will still have available the workforce of the size, competence and readiness to do the door-to-door follow-up.

"All the more reason why we need to push self-response," Vargas said, "and do it now."

Even with challenges, Latinos generally feel completing the census is important, according to the February 2019 survey by NALEO. Only 39 percent, however, were willing to fill out their census forms online; a third wanted to do it by mail.

Online response rates so far this year in some heavily Latino census tracts monitored by NALEO have been in the mid-teens, below the national response rate of 26.2 percent, Vargas said.

The lowest response rate, 8.5 percent, is in Aldine.

Pivoting in the time of coronavirus

NALEO’s Vargas said his group has made a half-million-dollar television and digital ad buy that includes ads in Spanish to make up for the lost face time and canceled events.

The group is increasing its digital campaign and enhancing it.

The Census Bureau has already mailed “invitations”for Americans to do their responses online. They come with a code that is connected to the address. But even if families haven’t received that code, they can still respond online and Vargas’ group is pushing people to do so.

In the case of families without internet, Vargas said he is asking groups to push people to answer by phone. For English, people can call 844-330-2020 and for Spanish, 844-468-2020. NALEO also is making its hotline, 877-352-3676, available to answer questions about the census.

“We had all been planning to do events, press conferences, to do person-to-person contact. Now it's impossible, if not unlawful,” Vargas said. “Now our strategy is, let’s just reach people in every other mode we can.”

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