Connecting with hard-to-reach low-income border residents for 2020 Census concerns lawmakers

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Internet, confidentiality and hacking concerns plaguing 2020 Census count

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas congressman is worried about Internet connectivity for low-income Hispanic border residents who want to fill out the 2020 Census online, as well as overall Census outreach to the border population, and joins leaders in Washington who are concerned over whether Census officials are ready to roll out electronic questionnaires in less than a month.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, whose district includes McAllen, told Border Report on Wednesday that the state of “Texas didn’t make the proper investments to do the outreach for the Census. So I’m taking it upon myself and other community leaders to do the outreach and to assure that everyone is counted and so they know not to feel apprehensive about filling out the form.”

Earlier this month Gonzalez was among lawmakers who sent a letter to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham asking for specifics on agency outreach, as well as technology safeguards and accessibility to all. The Feb. 5 letter said:

“We are writing to inquire about the steps that the Census Bureau is taking to ensure that there is adequate access to computers in public spaces in advance of the 2020 Census. The 2020 Census is the first Census that will be conducted primarily online. As we prepare to guarantee every American – especially those living in rural communities – is counted, we need to address the lack of up-to-date technology in our public community spaces. Various community leaders have expressed their concern regarding the nature of the 2020 Census form’s formatting.  It may not be accessible by computers with hardware over a decade old – an issue especially affecting rural communities who rely heavily on resources in available community spaces. … Low-income communities and communities of color in rural areas are the most likely to be accessing the Census form on a public computer during the first wave of outreach. These constituents rely heavily on community spaces to have the technology necessary to access the Census registration forms.”

Gonzalez, who was in town to cast an early vote in his hometown prior to the March 3 primary elections, said he fears that low-income mostly Hispanic areas, like colonias, will go undercounted, or not counted at all. Adding to that is a growing fear among many Hispanics living along the South Texas border that the information they give to federal officials could be used against them regarding their immigration status. We must “all do our part to make sure there’s awareness not to have any fear in filling out the form and it’s our duty,” Gonzalez said.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez is seen on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, outside a voting station in McAllen, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Federal laws prohibit the sharing of Census information with other federal agencies, but after the Trump administration last year tried — and failed — to add a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, many Hispanics in this border region have remained leery of the count.

“We want to be aggressive and reach out to everyone and stay as proactive as possible to assure that everyone is counted,” Gonzalez said.

For every 1,000 households that go undercounted, the South Texas region stands to lose $150 million in federal funds, Gonzalez said. That is money used to fund education, infrastructure, veterans services and senior care.

The Census count also helps to determine the number of congressional delegates, and Texas is poised to gain seats if everyone is counted, officials say.

But with just three weeks to go before letters are to be sent out, critics say the 2020 Census is not ready to launch.

A serious lack of Internet connectivity to low-income and rural areas along the border area is a main problem, critics say.

This is the first time the Census will be conducted online and several expressed concerns over whether the agency has the technical capability to handle massive online responses. The agency is expected to begin sending out letters on March 12 to invite residents to fill out online Census forms, agency officials told Border Report on Wednesday.

“Since the last election we need to make sure we are vigilant and that we have the best connectivity and that it’s as safe as possible,” Gonzalez said, adding that those without Internet access should seek out federal government facilities, public libraries or city offices to access paper questionnaire forms. “There’s nothing safer than actually going out and filling out a form with a pen and paper,” he said.

Last week, congressional Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee drilled Dillingham on whether his agency is ready for this massive undertaking.

“To be honest, I don’t have full confidence that the administration is equipped to handle them,’’ Chairwoman U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, of New York told Dillingham during the Feb. 13 hearing.

Dillingham defended his agency to the committee, saying “we’re way ahead of what’s needed.”

“We are on mission, on target ad on budget,” Dillingham told lawmakers. “We are not behind.”

However, a new Government Accountability Office report has trashed preparations so far for the upcoming count and has called into question whether the Bureau has adequately protected its computer systems from hacking; hired enough workers and partnered with enough community groups, and this includes areas like South Texas.

The report went a step further and even added the 2020 Census to it’s “High Risk” list. (Read the full GAO report.)

Robert Goldenkoff, director of the GAO’s Strategic Issues Team said in a video: “The bureau’s plan for 2020 includes innovations that it believes will save taxpayers more than $5 billion compared to traditional methods, these innovations include giving the option to respond via the Internet to Census questionnaires …. these innovations show promise but they also introduce new risk because the tools and techniques have not been used extensively in earlier decennials, if at all.”

Congress appropriated $6.7 billion this fiscal year for the purpose of conducting the 2020 Census.

“We have one shot every 10 years to get this right,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said. “We intend to hold them accountable. We still have a few weeks and we’re going to keep pushing them.”

Read a complete 2020 Census plan put out by the government.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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