Census uncertainty: Commerce Dept. deadline reaps turmoil

United States 2020 Census signs are seen staked in the ground around the Dancy Building in downtown Brownsville reminding citizens to fill out thier Census Wednesday afternoon. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The 2020 census count took another abrupt turn on Sept. 28, when the Commerce Department tweeted that the “target date” for ending door-to-door census taking and self-reported census counting is Oct. 5.

The announcement came four days after — and in defiance of — a California federal district judge’s order that the U.S. census count continue through Oct. 31. The Justice Department by then had already announced it planned to appeal U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh’s decision granting a preliminary injunction against ending the count on Sept. 30.

The original deadline to wrap up in-person enumeration was July 31, though the U.S. Census Bureau pushed it back to Oct. 31 in order to help ensure an accurate count of every U.S. resident. The bureau reversed course in early August, moving the deadline to the end of September and leaving census officials across the nation at their wits’ end.

Bloomberg News reported that Koh on Sept. 29 initiated contempt proceedings against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for defying her order to allow the census count to continue through the end of October, with a hearing set for Oct. 2.

Cameron County Clerk Sylvia Garza-Perez, who leads the county’s census efforts, breathed a sigh of relief at news of Koh’s injunction, but on Wednesday said she was “not too happy” about the new deadline. Normally the county would have had five months to attempt to count every resident, but with the pandemic and the truncated time lines imposed by the government, it works out to only about two and half months, she said.

If the count ends Oct. 5, the county probably will fall short of the 2010 census response rate, Garza-Perez said, noting that as of Wednesday the current census response rate stood at 51.8 percent.

“For them not to give us the extension is really going to hurt us,” she said. “My feeling is that we’ve not been given a fair chance to get everyone counted. What are they expecting from not only Texas but other states? When the whole country is shut down because of this pandemic there’s nothing possibly that we could have done differently to ensure that the count was done correctly, or that the county was even fully engaged to be successful. It’s very unfortunate for the Rio Grande Valley to be going through this.”

A Commerce Department attorney said the Oct. 5 target date is part of a contingency plan for meeting the statutory deadline of Dec. 31 for delivering the first set of census results to the White House, though Congress has the power to push back that deadline through legislation.

During a Wednesday virtual 2020 U.S. Census Town Hall moderated by members of Futuro RGV, Cathy Lacy, director of the Dallas Regional Census Center, confirmed that her office is aiming for Oct. 5 as the last day of the census count. The meeting also featured Rio Grande Valley congressional representatives Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela, as well as a number of local officials from around the Valley.

Considering that an undercount could mean Texas loses representation in Congress, in addition to potentially leaving billions of dollars in federal funding on the table, Vela said shortening the census count makes no sense.

“At the end of the day it seems to me that no matter which party you belong to, that whether you’re in federal or state leadership, we ought to have an interest in giving people as much time (as possible) to count themselves,” he said. “The effort on behalf of the census bureau to limit the time, to me just seems to be counterproductive.”

Cuellar, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said congressional Democrats have pushed for a census extension as part of appropriations legislation but have been blocked by Senate Republicans and the Trump administration.

“The White House and the Senate said no,” Cuellar said. “I sit on (the appropriations committee). I can tell you it’s not a money issue. It is not a money issue.”

Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal asked what could be done to push the census deadline back again, to which Gonzalez replied that “we’ve been urging the administration and the census bureau to work with us to extend that deadline.”

“And I would say write your senators,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t need to write me, because I’m already doing it. Write your members of Congress, write your senators, to urge the administration to extend that deadline and ensure everyone is counted. We should have our governor very supportive of this idea. He should be urging the president to extend the deadline. … I think everybody, I don’t care what party you’re from or what your ideology is, everybody should ensure that we’re all counted in the state of Texas and that the federal resources we deserve are available to us based on our population.”