LAS CRUCES – Local government leaders Friday extolled the importance of getting an accurate count of the state’s population as America heads into the 2020 census.
Leaders pressed citizens to participate, saying funding for federal programs essential to New Mexicans are on the line. They also tried to reassure residents who may be afraid to participate because of immigration status.
“It’s safe, it’s easy and it’s critical that you be counted,” Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said.
Las Cruces city councilors, Miyagishima, Doña Ana County commissioners and mayors from other county municipalities held a press conference Jan. 31 to launch the “Be Counted” or “Tu Cuentas” campaign, a partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau to ensure a complete count of every person living within city and county limits.
The campaign is superhero themed, using an image of a girl in a mask and cape and featuring the same font as Marvel Comics’ “The Avengers.” Several children also attended the news conference wearing different colored hero outfits.
“By answering the census, our residents become superheroes,” Miyagishima continued. “Protecting the future of our community and our kids.”
‘Hard to count’
“Be Counted” focuses on reaching traditionally undercounted groups, such as children younger than 5, the elderly, veterans, immigrants, Native Americans on tribal land, individuals with high rates of housing instability, residents with disabilities, people with limited access to the internet and people afraid to participate.
New Mexico has traditionally been one of the hardest states to count because it’s rural, has a high poverty rate and many lack internet access. Census estimates show about 43 percent of New Mexicans live in hard-to-count areas.
Census data affects where more than $675 billion worth of federal funding goes, to programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, State Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP), Section 8 Housing, Head Start, food stamps, the National School Lunch Program, Special Education Grants and highway planning and construction.
New Mexico receives about $7.8 billion in federal assistance money annually. About $4 billion is just for Medicaid.
Even a 1 percent undercount in Las Cruces could lead to the loss of $30 million over 10 years, according to the city. Statewide, a 1 percent undercount could cost $780 million in federal funds over the next decade, according to New Mexico officials.
The census, counted every 10 years, also determines the number of representatives a state gets in Congress and how districts are drawn.
The city says that for each person not counted, Las Cruces could lose $3,745 per year until the next census count in 2030. That’s $34,750 a person for the next decade.
“So much is at stake for New Mexico,” Oriana Sandoval, chief executive officer for the Albuquerque-based Center for Civic Policy, said. “There is potentially billions of dollars on the line.”
In 2010, New Mexico’s census participation was the second lowest in the nation. The state hopes to change that this time. The New Mexico Senate passed a bill Wednesday that’d allocate $8 million for census education and outreach statewide. The bill is moving through the state House of Representatives.
This year’s census will be the first one to rely heavily on online responses. While residents can still answer the census by paper form or by phone, Las Cruces will host census events where people can get help filling out the forms online.
By April 1, all homes should receive an invitation by mail to answer the census. There will be three ways people can respond — online, by mail, or by phone. The Census Bureau encourages everyone to respond online if possible. Anyone without internet access can respond by mailing back a paper questionnaire or by calling a toll-free number that will appear on the census invitation.
The online and phone options are available in 12 languages besides English. The paper form will be only in English and Spanish.
The city will hold events at senior centers, Parks and Recreation facilities, the Thomas Branigan Library and its satellite locations, museums and at the Farmers and Crafts Market. They’ll also be conducting a bilingual ad campaign using social media, radio and flyers passed out to businesses and nonprofits.
For more census information, visit las-cruces.org/census.
The census will take about 10 minutes to complete, officials say. Residents have until July 31 to respond to the census.
Making sure immigrants are counted
New Mexico also has a sizable number of immigrant residents, many undocumented. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data, New Mexico had about 60,000 undocumented immigrants in 2016 and a total immigrant population of more than 196,000 in 2015.
The Census Bureau won’t share responses with immigration or law enforcement agencies, the city said, and online responses are encrypted to protect people’s privacy.
Last year, the Trump Administration tried to add a citizenship question to the census, but it was blocked by the Supreme Court. The administration dropped the matter instead of fighting it in court, since it had a deadline to finalize the census forms.
The attempt to add the question led to fears the administration would use the information to draw legislative districts based on number of citizens rather than residents, which critics said could’ve unfairly boosted Republican power.
The administration said it wanted to use the citizenship data to uphold and protect minority voting rights, but Chief Justice John Roberts argued the administration’s justification wasn’t credible.
There were also fears that immigrants may be afraid to fill out and return the census forms with a citizenship question, which could undercount the Hispanic population of the United States, alter the number of House of Representative seats in a state and affect the distribution of federal funds to states.
While the question won’t appear on the census, its proposal may have already made some immigrant communities nervous.
“I think it could potentially have a chilling effect,” Sandoval said, adding that’s why she thinks it’s important to get the message out to the state’s immigrant community the question won’t be on the census.
A 2018 poll found 68 percent of Latino registered voters feared the Trump administration would share personal census information.
District 3 Las Cruces City Councilor Gabriel Vasquez said the campaign will attempt to dispel any misconception that a citizenship question will appear on the form through bilingual fliers and ads.
“Residents in Doña Ana County should feel absolutely safe in providing their information regardless of their legal status,” Vasquez said, before delivering his remarks again in Spanish. “Regardless of your citizenship status, the services that we provide are dependent on everybody being counted.”
Sandoval said her organization will be coordinating engagements efforts to ensure an accurate count, such as door knocking done by “trusted messengers” — organizations already embedded within communities that have trusted reputations — and mail and media campaigns.
Allex Luna is a lead organizer with the Las Cruces-based New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fé. In their census campaign, called My Family Counts, Luna is in charge of operations for Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties.
Luna also sees potential participation issues stemming from the proposal to add a citizenship question.
“One of the biggest things right now is scare tactics that are happening around the immigration question, especially being so close to the border,” Luna said. “So there’s a fear in participating … There’s also a lot of inherent distrust between community and government.”
That’s why NM CAFé plans to act as one of those trusted messengers. Luna said they’ll be canvassing door-to-door, sharing social media testimonies and plan to hold “house meetings” — an old tactic borne from farm workers organizing — to affirm trust in the census process.