City of Las Cruces officials recently launched a superhero-themed campaign for the 2020 Census called “Be Counted” or “Tu Cuentas” in Spanish.
“By answering the Census, our residents become superheroes, protecting the future of our community and our kids,” Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said.
The campaign focuses on reaching traditionally undercounted groups. That includes children younger than 5, the elderly, veterans, immigrants, residents with disabilities, people facing housing instability and more.
Miyagishima said it’s “safe,” “easy,” and “critical” for residents to be counted.
“And this is really important that regardless of race, language or immigration status, we need to know exactly how many people are living here in the United States,” Miyagishima said. “This data determines how the $675 billion that Congress allocates is going to be used. Anywhere from Medicare, Medicaid, public safety, roads, housing, school lunches and such.”
Census workers said the goal is to count everyone once and in the right place. But that’s been a challenge for a poor, rural state like New Mexico. About 42 percent of New Mexicans live in hard-to-count neighborhoods, according to Census estimates.
In 2010, the state had the second lowest Census response rate in the country at 65 percent–a 3 percent decrease from 2000. Doña Ana County responded slightly higher at 67 percent.
But it’s not just the City worried about leaving federal money on the table. Doña Ana County District 5 Commissioner Manuel Sanchez said smaller municipalities have more to lose with an undercount.
“But when you look at the smaller municipalities, they don't have that income stream that maybe the larger municipality as Las Cruces has, so they become even more dependent on the federal funding. Whether it comes funneled through the state to them or the county to them, it would be a larger impact to them," Sanchez said.
City officials said undercounting Las Cruces residents by one percent could cost the City roughly $30 million over the next decade. Statewide, a one percent undercount might mean losing out on $780 million in federal funds over those same 10 years. That's $3,745 per person, per year.
Like past Census counts, residents may respond by mail or over the phone. But the City said the 2020 census is the first one to rely heavily on online responses.
That could be challenging for rural communities with little or no Internet access. City of Anthony Mayor Diana Trujillo encourages residents to use the Anthony public library. But she knows there are some residents afraid to answer the Census and the door.
“But also we have a lot of individuals that are, do not want to participate because they're in fear of being, in their immigration status or other you know issues that they might have, they don't want to be questioned or anything like that,” Trujillo said. “So, I guess we need to educate our public and our residents not to worry because some of the questions that a lot of them feared in the past–that's not going to be on this Census.”
President Trump tried to add a citizenship question to the Census last year. While he backed down, Trump signed an executive order to get data from U.S. agencies about the legal status of everyone living in the country.
“We must have a reliable count of how many citizens, noncitizens and illegal aliens are in our country,” Trump said during a July 2019 news conference.
By law, Census answers are confidential and cannot be used against the respondent.
At the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library, administrator Margaret Neill said the library received a grant to buy laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to host Census events around Las Cruces.
Neill also said she thinks the library will be key to helping residents be counted online.
“Libraries in general often help bridge a digital divide which is the people who don't have access to a regular Internet connection. We have over 4,000 sessions a month of computer usage in just this facility, not counting our other two satellite locations. So, we are a place where people come if they don't have regular access to the Internet. So, if they want to take the Census online they will come here more than likely because they know that they can,” Neill said.
There’s more to the Census. Counting the population every 10 years determines representation in Congress and how district lines in the state are drawn.
That’s why it’s important to count everyone, regardless of legal status. Commissioner Sanchez said the county, which received roughly $250,000 from the state to fund Census efforts, is working with local governments and community members to accomplish that task.
“I think, one, is dispelling that myth about the citizenship question and how the information is being used,” Sanchez said. “The second part is going to be really utilizing the trusted voices in the community. We've been working with promotoras and various other trusted folks in the community to try to make sure that they're the trusted voice, making sure that they're getting that information out. But it's really just around trying to inform them about the process.”
Even with assurances that Census data is safe, local officials say transparency is key to earning public trust.
City officials said all homes should receive a mailed invitation by April 1 to answer the Census. Census takers will begin to visit homes that have not responded by May 13. The last day for residents to self-respond is July 31.