Illustration by Emily Albracht

Ahead of 2020 census, Texans are becoming even harder to count

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note that the U.S. Commerce Department announced that a citizenship question would be included on the 2020 census.

A conference room in a Houston municipal building will soon take the form of a political war room.

Maps outlining city blocks and tracts will adorn the walls. Operatives will gather to strategize on block-walking in different communities. And outreach plans will be solidified in hopes of shaking hands and meeting with as many constituents as possible.

The extensive ground game that will be formulated in that war room, and similar ones across the state, won’t be in support of any candidate or political campaign. Instead, it will be to promote the once-in-a-decade census — a crucial count of every person living in the United States.

“It doesn’t matter if your parents came over on the Mayflower or five years ago or less,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, Houston’s census manager for the 2010 count. “What matters to us is who lives here and who needs our services, and how can we best provide those services to our community.”

But even two years out from the 2020 count, local officials, demographers, community organizers and advocates say they are worried the census could be particularly tough to carry out in Texas this go-around.

They are bracing for challenges both practical — Hurricane Harvey displacement, internet accessibility and fewer funds with which to knock on doors — and political, namely anti-immigrant rhetoric and fears that people would be too afraid to respond to a census questionnaire that asks about citizenship status. Those issues aren’t insurmountable, officials say, but they will probably make Texas, which is already hard to count, even tougher to enumerate.

What’s at stake

An accurate census is critical to the state. It is used to determine how many representatives Texas is entitled to elect to Congress. And the Texas Legislature and local governments rely on the data to redraw corresponding political boundaries.

The census also serves as a roadmap for the distribution of billions of federal dollars to the state and local communities, including funding for low-income housing, medical assistance and transportation projects.

But those working toward an accurate count in Texas are, in many ways, starting from behind. Massive in both size and population, Texas is home to millions of residents who fall into the categories of people who pose the biggest challenges for the headcount — immigrants, college students, children younger than 5 years old, to name a few.

After the 2010 census count, the U.S. Census Bureau found that most Texas residents live in areas that may be harder to count. Using a “low response score,” which is based on the likelihood that residents will not self-respond to a questionnaire, the bureau found that most Texas residents live in census tracts — geographic areas that include 1,200 to 8,000 residents — that exceed the national average for low response scores.

That’s particularly evident in areas with large shares of Hispanics and residents living in poverty, which are prevalent across the state.

Texas’ Hispanic residents are hard to count

About 66 percent of the state's residents — and 85 percent of Texas Hispanics — live in census tracts that exceed the national average for low response scores. All of the state’s 5,265 tracts are shown as dots in the chart below, along with the percentage of Hispanics in each tract.

An analysis of the data shows that the higher the percentage of Hispanics in a census tract, the more likely the tract is to be hard to count.

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Filter by urban area
Each dot represents one Texas census tract
Above national average
Below national average

“Certainly, we have populations that are hard to count — people whose first language isn’t English, people who have lower levels of educational attainment, people who move frequently,” state demographer Lloyd Potter said. “You have both recent immigrants and then, certainly, people who are unauthorized who are going to be wary of anyone who is knocking on their door and asking questions.”

That’s the chief concern among those working toward an accurate count in Texas.

Almost 5 million immigrants live in the state, and it’s estimated that about two-thirds are noncitizens — legal permanent residents, immigrants with another form of legal status or undocumented immigrants. Additionally, more than 1 million Texans who are U.S. citizens live with at least one family member who is undocumented.

Local officials, advocates and demographers for months have expressed grave concerns about the reception the 2020 census will receive among Texas immigrants who have likely followed years-long heated national and local debates over undocumented immigrants, immigration-enforcement laws like the one passed by the Texas Legislature last year and immigration crackdowns.

“Anyone close to this issue is really concerned. It’s an anti-immigrant environment,” said Ryan Robinson, demographer for Austin, which is home to 167,000 immigrants. “It’s always hard to count immigrants, but this is really going to be a tough issue.”

That sentiment has spread across the state, where locals working on getting an accurate count have gotten a head start in reaching out to immigrant advocates, social services organizations, religious leaders and even schools in hopes of countering concerns that the census isn’t safe for immigrants.

“We realize there are a lot of people who are in fear of this and they’re untrusting,” said Erika Reyna, who is coordinating census efforts in Hidalgo County, which is home to almost 230,000 immigrants.

But those fears have been compounded in recent months after the U.S. Department of Justice asked the Census Bureau to tack on a question on citizenship to the 2020 questionnaire. That request was further highlighted by a fundraising email sent out last week by a fundraising committee for President Donald Trump that made clear the president wants the census to ask people “whether or not they are citizens.”

On Monday evening, the U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees the census, announced that a citizenship question would be included on the 2020 census — a move that immediately prompted lawsuits against the Trump administration in an effort to keep the question off the questionnaire.

The Census Bureau — which is expected to submit questions for the 2020 census to Congress by March 31 — has not asked all households about citizenship since the 1950 census. The bureau does ask about citizenship as part of annual surveys that only cover a sample of U.S. residents.

But local officials, demographers and advocates all agree that including a citizenship question on the 2020 questionnaire would be incredibly detrimental to an accurate count in Texas because it would further frighten immigrants — even those authorized to be in the country — and their families and keep them from being counted.

“That would be the torpedo that sinks the boat,” Robinson said.

“Increasing challenges”

The repercussions of an immigrant undercount in Texas could go as far as curtailing the state’s projected gain of three congressional seats in Congress. Texas Hispanics — who make up a majority of the state’s immigrant population — were behind 65 percent of the population growth that helped Texas gain four seats after the 2010 Census.

Almost 700,000 immigrants — just about the number of people living in each congressional district — reside in Houston, where officials are worried about reaching immigrants who are “unsettled by recent actions and recent rhetoric.”

“By taking any steps to make it more difficult and more frightening for immigrant populations, the result is an inaccurate census,” said Wallace Brown, Houston’s 2010 census manager.

Most of Houston’s residents live in areas that are hard to count

Almost 70 percent of Houston residents live in census tracts with low response scores that exceed the national average.

About 85 percent of Houston's Hispanic residents live within those tracts. Those tracts and their share of Hispanic residents are shown below.

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Each dot represents one Houston census tract
Above national average
Below national average

Ahead of the Commerce Department’s announcement, Census Bureau officials had not taken a public stance on these concerns. Instead, they had highlighted the important roles state and local leaders and government officials play in ensuring that the census does not miss any population group.

The census benefits “when a local official stands up and says, ‘Answer the door, this is safe, this is something you should respond to, this is important for our community, it does not matter why you’re here,’” said Lacey Loftin, a Census Bureau official based in Texas.

But Loftin also acknowledged that the census will face “increasing challenges” during the 2020 count, given the state’s growth among populations that are traditionally harder to count.

“If you’re hostile toward a certain population, and they are the face of whatever government that makes people just wary of the government in general,” Loftin said. “It’s important that people feel safe to answer the door, especially around that time.”

Further complications

On top of those challenges, the Census Bureau is working with a tighter budget ahead of a 2020 count for which the bureau is hoping to primarily rely on technology — as opposed to traditional mail or door-knocking — for collecting questionnaires.

That has raised concerns in South Texas, where census officials say they run into “major issues” with internet accessibility among poor residents, particularly among residents of the colonias — unincorporated, impoverished communities along the the border that often lack basic amenities like water service and paved roads.

“We know there’s a digital divide between those of us who are elderly and those of you who are younger, but there’s also a digital divide between our low and very low-income people who don’t have computers, who don’t live in areas where there’s Wi-Fi. And, they are generally the people in this region that are grossly undercounted,” said Ann Williams Cass, the executive director of the Rio Grande Valley-based Proyecto Azteca, a nonprofit affordable-housing organization, previously told local officials.

In 2020, the bureau will allow residents to respond to the decennial questionnaire online, over the phone and on paper. In-person enumerators will knock on doors when residents don’t respond to questionnaires. But given the state’s wide range of hard-to-count areas, some are also concerned those efforts will run into budget constraints.

In 2010, the bureau’s budget allowed enumerators to knock on doors up to seven times, said Loftin, the census official. But the bureau might not have those resources this time.

While local officials say it would be tough for local jurisdictions to make up for a funding gap, those concerns have helped kick-start complete count efforts across the state much earlier than they began for the 2010 count.

“The one message we have gotten from the bureau is that more than ever, funding really is scarce for them and what they’re worried about is that where that funding shortage will manifest is in their outreach,” said Robinson of the city of Austin. “That makes it even more incumbent on local folks to generate enthusiasm.”

Further complicating census issues in the state is the ongoing housing fallout from Hurricane Harvey. Tens of thousands of people living in coastal communities were displaced after the Category 4 hurricane slammed the Texas coast last August, and it’s unclear how many have returned to their battered homes.

In Houston alone, thousands of people are still displaced six months after Harvey. Local officials say they’re working to build on Harvey recovery efforts to maintain connections with affected residents for census purposes, but it’s virtually impossible to know how many of displaced residents will be back in their homes ahead of the 2020 count.

“Will they be back in their homes when the mail arrives on their doorstep, or will there be anybody living there at that house?” Wallace Brown said. “That’s a big challenge for us.”

Design by Emily Albracht. Additional development by Annie Daniel.