County officials reflect on census; Judge praises effort to achieve accurate count

It was bad enough when the pandemic delayed the census, so the last thing Cameron County Clerk Sylvia Garza-Perez needed was to contract COVID-19, but that’s just what happened.

She spent the first three weeks of July out of commission and three days in the hospital, where she was on oxygen the entire time. Garza-Perez could barely breathe, had dangerously low blood pressure and was fainting by the time she was admitted. Trying to take a deep breath, not to mention coughing, was agonizing, she said.

During the three weeks the county’s top census official was offline, the county’s census campaign ground to a halt. But Garza-Perez, who chaired the county’s Complete County Committee, was back on the job the day after being cleared for the virus. The meetings and organizing began again in order to promote the census and encourage residents to self respond in an historically undercounted county. The county partnered with the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, Noble Charities, school districts and municipalities in the census campaign.

When Garza-Perez went back to work county’s census self-response rate was 46.3 percent. As of two weeks ago it was 52.3 percent, she said, though she’s been unable to reach census officials for the latest update since the count ended last week.

“We tried to do our best,” Garza-Perez said. “We were still able to get a few points short of where we were in 2010. I think for Cameron County that’s a big accomplishment.”

The county’s 2010 self-response rate was 56.4 percent. The total number and percentage of residents counted won’t be known until the U.S. Census Bureau releases the results of door-to-door enumeration by census takers. Garza-Perez said that may bring the county close to or even in line with the 2010 total. Even so, the county stands to lose tens of millions of dollars in federal money by being severely undercounted yet again, she said.

It didn’t help that the Trump administration ultimately succeeded in shortening the census county by two weeks after a confusing legal battle, Garza-Perez said.

The original deadline to end counting was July 31, though the census bureau pushed it back to Oct. 31 to get closer to an accurate count of all U.S. residents as required by the Constitution. The bureau reversed course in early August, moving the deadline to the end of September, triggering a lawsuit that resulted in a ruling from California federal District Judge Lucy Koh that the count continue through Oct. 31.

On Sept. 28 the Commerce Department announced an Oct. 5 target date for winding down the census, in defiance of the Koh’s order. The administration’s request for a stay on that ruling was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The county’s census campaign roared back to life and a number of census events were planned. Then on Oct. 13 the Supreme Court ruled in the administration’s favor, shutting down the census count two weeks before the Oct. 31 deadline.

The administration argued that the earlier deadline was necessary for preliminary census results to be delivered to the president by Dec. 31, though Congress has the power to move that deadline.

“It’s been extremely disappointing,” Garza-Perez said. “It ended last week. We actually had some events that we were planning. We had to cancel them.”

County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. also expressed dissatisfaction.

“It’s extremely disheartening because it’s painfully obvious that this administration wants to make sure that only certain individuals are counted in this country,” he said.

Undercounting minority and undocumented communities has the direct result of limiting the amount of federal money available for projects and programs in places like Cameron County, Trevino said.

“Everyone would agree, regardless of one’s party affiliation, that Texas and the Valley have been growing by leaps and bounds over the last several decades, but especially over the last 10 years,” he said. “We should want an accurate count to make sure … that we get everything that we’re entitled to. Because that’s what the Constitution calls for and that’s the obligation of the census bureau.”

Treviño said the county has more than 500,000 residents, even if they’re not all counted, and that surpassing that mark officially would have a substantial positive impact on the county. He’s keeping his fingers crossed.

“I hope we show a big jump in population,” Treviño said. “If we pass that threshold then we will have achieved our goal of getting past that number.”

He said Garza-Perez has been “an inspiration and a leader” throughout the process, and also praised the census workers and volunteers who did their best to engage county residents.

“Even though the self-response rate is not what we wanted it to be, I think we’ve done well considering the circumstances and the predicament that we found ourselves in, and I need to give her and the Cameron County Complete Count committee a lot of credit.”