Brownsville pushing census outreach efforts

Myrna Leal, Census Liaison for the City of Brownsville, stands in her office surrounded by Census 2020 swag and promotional items Friday in City Plaza. The city of Brownsville is ramping up its census outreach efforts again in order to get more residents counted. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

The City of Brownsville is ramping up its census outreach efforts once again. The 2020 Census will touch the lives of every Brownsville resident. Response rates will determine how much federal funding counties and municipalities receive across the next decade, impacting everything from roadways and parks to school district funding, university tuition grants, WIC and SNAP benefits, and Medicaid.

According to Myrna Leal, Census Liaison for the City of Brownsville, officials began outreach efforts back in 2018 with the formation of a complete count committee. Letters were sent out from then-mayor Tony Martinez’s office inviting organizations to participate, 20 to 30 of which have worked closely with the city to distribute information and materials.

As the deadline approached, however, Leal said the city’s response rate slowed. The committee did not expect to be collecting census information during a pandemic, and for the safety of both employees and residents, in-person outreach has been largely suspended.

This means that Brownsville’s response rate as it currently stands is roughly 15 percentage points lower than it was in 2010. As of Friday afternoon, Brownsville’s official total was 51.6 percent.

By comparison, Texas had a 57.3% response rate; while Cameron County’s total response rate was only 45.6 percent. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau documents the county’s poverty rate at a soaring 27.9 percent, highlighting the importance of the census in making essential, federally-funded public programs available to all residents.

Due to the pandemic, the census response deadline has been extended through October 31. “We’ve had to realign our strategies,” said Leal. “We’re definitely not giving up. Our goal for 2020 is for it to be at least 80 percent.”

Census outreach has been aided by schools, nonprofits, and public officials. At recent United Against Hunger Events, 2020 census bags and educational materials have been handed out in addition to food bundles. #GetShiftDone workers are helping spread the word at the events each Friday.

“ We’re out there where we have large crowds, where people are still able to socially distance because they’re in their own vehicles,” said Leal. “We even have incentives — we offer a $5 HEB gift card for residents to complete the census with us.”

Outreach has been challenging, however, and as census workers can’t knock on doors with COVID-19 cases surging Valley-wide. In-person visits may pick up in coming months. Residents should be aware that census workers should have an ID, a census bag, and a laptop. “They will never ask for personal information. They will never ask for a driver’s license,” said Leal.

Particularly challenging in a community like Brownsville is reaching undocumented residents. There is no citizenship question on the 2020 Census, something that local staff pushed for, even working with Projecto Juan Diego to work with residents on the path to citizenship to reduce fear associated with filling out the questionnaire.

“ We let the census know that if you put the citizenship question on here, you will have a severe undercount. Reaching these residents is our biggest challenge aside from people maybe not knowing about the census,” Leal explained.

Leal recalled a woman saying she couldn’t complete the questionnaire because she was undocumented and had young children.

“ I asked if her children went to public school and she said yes. I asked if her children receive lunch at public school. I told her —this is an example of how this is really going to help your kids. It does not matter where you come from. You’re living here and you need to be counted, because you matter as much as everybody else within this community,” she said.

“ It is safe and the information from this questionnaire is not shared with any other government agency. It never has been. It stays confidential for 70 years.”

Another challenge is reaching those without access to internet, or those who are experiencing a language barrier. The city’s health department has been instrumental in visiting neighborhoods and leaving information packets at people’s doors and on vehicles.

Staff has iPads to set up for those who don’t have internet at home. Residents can respond at The census can also be completed over the phone by calling (844) 330-2020 for English or (844) 468-2020 for Spanish.

Staff will be sending out non-response follow-ups in the mail beginning in mid-August.

The residential neighborhoods surrounding UTRGV have the lowest response rates in the city, according to Leal, and these will be centers of outreach once employees are able to safely walk into neighborhoods with appropriate PPE.

In Southmost, City Commissioner, District 1 Nurith Galonsky is considering the idea of a “barrio challenge”, suggested to her by a constituent, set up like March Madness. She encouraged her district to take 5 to 10 minutes to respond.

“ You live here, and so you’re entitled to these resources. You pay taxes. You should also receive some of these benefits that come with having a more accurate census count, to help with hospitals, roads, libraries, parks — all the things that the federal government helps pay for,” she said.

“ By participating in the census, no one will be able to track to see whether you’re here legally or not. We need to get better numbers. It’s a matter of getting the message out. I encourage people to fill the census out.”