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With COVID-19 cases on the rise, census efforts double down for an accurate El Paso population count

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Ashley Lemell has been working with the El Paso Census Bureau office to ensure that El Pasoans experiencing homelessness will be counted in the 2020 census. 

Lemell, with the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless, has mapped out homeless shelters and transitional living centers in El Paso to connect with people and to share the importance of an accurate census count for the area. Since December, Lemell said they had connected with about 100 people to encourage filling out the census form and to also apply for jobs with the census bureau. 

In addition to planning programming, Lemell also hired those who had previously experienced homelessness to talk about the importance of filling out the census and getting an accurate count in El Paso with families and individuals who are housing insecure.

“A lot of times those who are living on the street, you know, may say, ‘Why is the census important to me? How is this impacting me?’” Lemell said. “And so it was great to have someone who had that experience, who knew where the hot spots were and could say, ‘Hey, I remember you. Let me tell you why the census is important to me. I’ve been where you are. This is how it impacts us.”

Then El Paso shut down in March as COVID-19 began spreading through the community. 

With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the rise in El Paso, Lemell said community events planned for the spring have been pushed back. An event on Tuesday is the first since Valentine’s Day. 

Census response so far

An estimated 61 percent of El Pasoans have responded to the census so far, just above the statewide rate of 57 percent. The stakes of the census response rate includes what portion of $675 billion in federal funds El Paso could receive, as well as the number of representatives in Congress and the state Legislature. 

In recent months, community events and personal outreach by census workers have been replaced by awareness campaigns in essential services like grocery stores, complemented by virtual town hall meetings.

According to Beth Lynk, the national director for Census Counts, an independent campaign to coordinate census response efforts, the pandemic exacerbates existing barriers to getting an accurate count. That’s particularly true in Texas, where there is no state funding allocated for messaging to encourage people to respond.

“While the U.S. government, the federal government, supports and funds the actual operations of the 2020 census, it’s up to states to invest in the communities that are most at risk of being missed in the census,” Lynk said. “And, in actuality, invest in the future of the state and of the cities of that state to ensure that everyone participates in the census (and) gets the resources and political power that they deserve.”

According to Lynk, concerns about a possible citizenship question and anti-immigration rhetoric by President Donald Trump have also contributed to a low response amongst undocumented residents. 

Despite the Supreme Court ruling blocking the Trump administration’s efforts to put a citizenship question on the questionnaire, Tamika Turner, the national communications director for Census Counts, said fears linger.

“Everyone, including undocumented immigrants, counts and is supposed to be counted in the 2020 census,” Turner said. “But we know that folks may be fearful or may have questions about how that information is used. And we want to remind folks that it’s illegal for the Census Bureau to share your information with anyone: landlords, ICE,  even public benefit providers.”

Dispelling disinformation and connecting with those hard to reach

In El Paso, dispelling this misinformation and trying to make contact with hard-to-reach communities are critical to ensure an accurate count, said Denise Vasquez, a research coordinator with the UT-Health Science Center at Houston. In partnership with the Paso del Norte Complete Count Committee, volunteers have been phone banking as well as conducting events of their own at sites like food banks. 

“We were doing the outreach to local food pantries, but we’re also trying to inform people through census caravans, which have become very popular right now with a pandemic,” Vasquez said. “We’re just going out there, driving around the community with messages about the census and offering to help those who haven’t completed it to connect them to the U.S. Census Bureau staff available.”

Because it is not safe to host large community gatherings due to COVID-19, promotoras are connecting with El Pasoans by driving across the area to meet people wherever they might be to educate them on the importance of the census. (Photo courtesy of Frontera Censo 2020)

According to Gloria Tostado, who is helping lead the census response effort for the El Paso area, the hard-to-count populations in El Paso also includes those living in new construction in remote areas of El Paso County. 

“Those are some of the areas that are least likely to be counted,” Tostado said. “And so what it means in El Paso is that they’re not going to get the resources they need, and they’re growing really fast, but then those people are not recorded.” 

Tostado said that newer streets are not always recorded or known, especially if they are past El Paso city limits. That meant they had to coordinate census forms to be hand delivered.   

The spread of COVID-19 pushed the delivery back to earlier this month. 

In early July, those outlying areas Tostado described had a response rate below 20 percent because the form delivery was delayed. Now, those areas are closer to a 40 percent response rate. 

“And so now more than ever, in those areas, because they’re barely getting information and everybody else got advertising and information in February, March, April … they’re barely doing it,” Tostado said.

Cover photo: Promotoras, or community health workers, from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston have outreached efforts taking place across El Paso with other local partner organizations to ensure an accurate census count for the county. (Photo courtesy of Frontera Censo 2020)

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Emma Baker

Emma Baker is interning as a data reporter with El Paso Matters through the Dow Jones News Fund. She is a student at Washington University in St. Louis where she studies English literature and Computer Science. You can reach her at @ems_lorraine with tips.

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