(Guest post from John-Michael Torres!)
In the midst of the continued economic recession, the US Census Bureau will begin a massive count of all persons residing in the United States. Based on this count – one that includes legal permanent residents, long-term visitors, and undocumented residents – the federal government will be distributing more than $400 billion dollars throughout the US. It is estimated that each person counted represents $2,200 yearly to the state, funding that at the local level is put into healthcare, schools, job training centers, and public works projects.
But the distribution of that funding to the Rio Grande Valley depends on an accurate population count, which has not been easy in the past. It is estimated that during the 2000 Census, 45 percent of households in Hidalgo County did not mail in their census forms, meaning hundreds of census workers had to be sent out to persuade them to fill them out. Since the distribution of that funding is based on population counts, if the Valley is undercounted again, we lose out on our proper share of that funding.
Census data also helps determine political representation. The bigger our state’s population, the more seats we have in the US House of Representatives. And with the US Congress redrawing the congressional districts map to include more districts in heavily Hispanic populated areas, an accurate count in the Valley could mean more political representation in Congress for our often neglected region.
Additionally, with many in our community legally barred from voting, the census is one way that undocumented residents can be counted. According to the Drum Major Institute, an organization that studies immigration, undocumented residents benefit from specific grant programs provisioned according to census data. These include Title 1 funding for low-income students, the Community Development Block Grant for affordable housing, and the Medicare Modernization Act.
What’s more, the count only happens once every 10 years, meaning if we don’t get an accurate count this time, we’ll have to wait another 10 years for another chance at the representation and funding we deserve.
While the stakes are high for an accurate count in all poor and immigrant communities, for those in communities that are organizing, like the Rio Grande Valley, the stakes are even higher. Whereas in unorganized communities, an additional representative probably means more of the same, the chance for increased representation in communities organizing to hold officials accountable means a chance for organized communities to put an accountable politician into office. Whereas in unorganized communities, additional resources mean more misuse of federal funds, for organized communities, the chance for more funding means a chance to organize for equitable distribution of funding that makes sure the money goes where it’s needed the most. For this reason, an accurate count is only the beginning but a necessary step in our fight to bring census benefits to our community and in our larger fight for social justice.
Community organizing has a big role to play in ensuring an accurate census count. Because of the fear caused by the current anti-immigrant climate, we risk a serious undercount in the communities that can use federal funding the most. Only through organizing can we combat that climate of fear. Through events and community organizing spaces such as our annual Cesar Chavez Day March, we have the opportunity to show our immigrant community members that we can be counted without fear of deportation or incarceration. At this year’s march we will be inviting community members to bring their census form and we will be available to help with any questions they might have.