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Counting the Colonias

A joint effort among the U.S. Census Bureau, Valley lawmakers and community groups is smoothing over the tensions of the past couple of weeks, when the bureau announced that 95 percent of residents of South Texas colonias were not getting their Census forms in the mail.

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Crossed signals between the U.S. Census Bureau and Rio Grande Valley legislators earlier this month raised concerns about the approach to counting the mostly rural, poverty-stricken colonias of South Texas. But state and federal lawmakers and local community organizations say they're working together to smooth over tensions.

Many residents of colonias are undocumented immigrants who avoid contact with government officials for fear of deportation. They own cheap land purchased from developers who failed to provide water, electricity or other utilities, and they live in dilapidated neighborhoods all along the Texas-Mexico border — an area that is among the hardest to count, census officials say. That's why the bureau's “Take 10” bus is on a nine-city tour of the Valley. Since April 15, it has made stops in the small communities of Rio Grande City, Zapata and La Grulla and in larger cities like Brownsville and Laredo.

Whether the Census Bureau has enough workers to cover such a large part of the state is an open question. Zapata County, for example, remains a major challenge for census officials. As of mid-April, the county’s response rate was at a staggeringly low 24 percent — well below the national rate of 72 percent. In 2000, Zapata County’s final rate was 38 percent, according to census data. But Efren Salinas, a spokesman for the Census Bureau who hails from the Valley, says the bureau is “fully staffed” for the effort this year, employing 2,100 "enumerators" to canvass Valley colonias, which began on March 22 and is set to end in May.

To the surprise of some Valley congressmen, the bureau announced three weeks ago that only 5 percent of colonia households would receive census forms in the mail. The move came after months-long media campaigns in the region by congressmen and community groups telling residents that forms would be sent to them and that their information was critical and confidential.

Before the announcement, U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, sent 100,000 bilingual mailers to colonia residents in his district, instructing them that the census form would arrive in the mail and was safe, easy and important to send back, said spokeswoman Patricia Guillermo. “There is a difference in the way they handled colonias in the other areas of Texas and the way they’re handling them in Hidalgo County,” she said, adding that the bureau mailed forms to colonias in Laredo and El Paso. “The residents [in the Hidalgo County colonias] do receive their mail, so we were just wondering why we hadn’t even been informed that [Valley colonias] were not going to receive any census forms in the mail.”

The uncertainty has prompted local advocacy groups that work in the colonias to shadow census workers and report to Hinojosa’s office if they think areas have been overlooked. Hinojosa is prepared to take any discrepancies that local organizations report to him directly to the Census Bureau, Guillermo said.

Census counters are required to record residents’ verbal responses to Census questions, and they will visit up to six times any house that does not respond, said bureau spokeswoman Jenna Steormann Arnold.

The bureau has used on-the-ground census workers in colonias for 20 years, touting the door-to-door method as the most expensive yet most accurate way to conduct the count. Records do not indicate how the bureau tracked colonia residents before 1990.

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