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Hidalgo County Fights to Boost Its Census Count

In rapidly growing Hidalgo County, officials who say the 2010 census dramatically undercounted the county’s population are seeking to influence the way its residents are counted in the future.

A young girl plays outside her home in the Pueblo de Palmas colonia near Mission, Texas, on Aug. 29, 2013.

Armed with maps, photos and data, Hidalgo County officials say they are fighting to undo the consequences of what they see as a dramatic undercount of the rapidly growing Rio Grande Valley county in the 2010 census.

In the overwhelmingly Hispanic county, where more than a third of residents have incomes below the federal poverty level, such population figures are crucial. They can translate into millions of dollars, as federal and state programs like Medicaid use population data to dole out money.

“We hope to have a tremendous impact on making sure that Hidalgo County gets their fair share,” said Rolando Rios, a San Antonio lawyer hired by Hidalgo County. 

County officials fear that it is too late to get the 2010 census numbers changed, so they are targeting the annual population estimates that both the U.S. Census Bureau and the Texas State Data Center put out ahead of the 2020 census.

The Census Bureau, which checks its work across the country shortly after each decennial census, says it did not measure a statistically significant undercount or overcount in Hidalgo County in 2010.

Stacy Gimbel Vidal, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said it is dedicated to putting out the best population estimates and is aware of Hidalgo County’s concerns. 

The 2010 census put Hidalgo County’s population at 774,769 people, a 36 percent increase from 2000. Rios says that it missed 25,000 to 70,000 people. Each of those people could have drawn about $3,000 in federal financing over 10 years, he said, meaning the county thinks it could miss out on as much as $210 million.

Evidence submitted by the county includes aerial photos, like one that shows a block that the census said had just 14 people, but had 152 rooftops. Rios said that means there could be 138 uncounted homes, which could include hundreds of uncounted people. 

“They’re in Washington,” Rios said of census officials. “What do they know about what’s going on in Edinburg and down on the border?”

The census’ 2012 estimate showed that the population of Hidalgo County — which includes McAllen, Edinburg and Mission — grew to 806,552 people.

The bureau is still considering two challenges from the county over the 2010 census. It is not possible to change the apportionment of congressional seats, which is based on the decennial census, but the bureau could issue revised counts that could be used for future programs, Vidal said.

County officials are not holding their breath. The census considered two other 2010 challenges from the county, correcting errors on the location of housing units but leaving the county’s population count as is.

“Perhaps we were not sufficiently clear,” Rios wrote to census officials in a letter earlier this year. “Hidalgo County’s concern is not only for the proper geographic placement of housing units, but also a complete and accurate count of population.”

The Census Bureau acknowledged that its files did not contain hundreds of addresses that the county submitted as part of the challenges, meaning those homes did not get a census form or visit, Rios said. Census officials told U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who represents part of Hidalgo County, that “our research could not conclude if these were valid living quarters at the time of the census or if they were in fact counted in the census.”

After meeting with census officials in April in Cuellar’s Washington office, county representatives and Cuellar were left with the impression that the 2010 count was not going to change, so they refocused their efforts.

Hidalgo and other border counties have historically been undercounted because there are large pockets of hard-to-access unincorporated areas and some illegal immigrants who are afraid of the government because they are worried that they will be deported, the county’s lawyers said.

“This is one of the poorest counties in the country, so we deal with folks that are really concerned with tomorrow’s meal as opposed to interacting with the government,” said Jose Garza, another lawyer representing Hidalgo County.

He said another problem in 2010 was that the Census Bureau had indicated it was going to send forms by mail — so local officials had prepared residents for that — but at the last moment, the bureau decided to send workers door to door.

Vidal of the Census Bureau disagreed, saying that decision was made about a year in advance.

Census officials say they chose the labor-intensive, highly accurate field operation in colonias — communities along the border that often lack services like potable water and paved roads — because many do not have postal service or have multiple homes on a single property. The door-to-door method also helps avoid problems like people not understanding survey documents or throwing them away, the Census Bureau said in a 2010 news release.

“They could have mailed it like they mail it to everybody else,” Cuellar said of the form. “Just because a road is a dirt road compared to a paved road, what’s the difference? There was an impression about colonias.”

Still, Cuellar and lawyers for Hidalgo County say they want to work with the Census Bureau and not against it. 

“Honey works better than vinegar,” Cuellar said. He said he told county representatives before they sat down with census officials, “Whatever you do, don’t talk about a lawsuit.”

Hidalgo County did sue over the 2000 census, joining neighboring Cameron County and dozens of area cities in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Commerce. A federal district judge dismissed most of the claims but ordered the department to release census data that the counties and cities were seeking, according to court documents.

Rick Alvarez, executive assistant to Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, said a draft lawsuit has been prepared over the 2010 census, but “we’re trying to handle it administratively.”

Lloyd Potter, the state demographer and director of the Texas State Data Center, said there was probably an undercount in 2010, but perhaps not as large as the county believes. It is possible that in some cases, uncounted homes belong to snowbirds who spend winters in Hidalgo County and the rest of the year in places like the Midwest, where they were presumably counted by the census, Potter said.

“We’re a little skeptical about their claims,” Potter said of Hidalgo County officials, but he is continuing to study the matter.

“I’m taking it very seriously because I don’t want them — or any county or city — to get shortchanged,” he added. “When they undercount a significant number of people, that has very real implications for them in terms of the services that they can provide.”

Programs with financing linked to population data include those that get money from federal social services block grants, including child protective services and services for people with disabilities. 

Eduardo Olivarez, chief administrative officer for the Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Department, said census figures help determine the amount of federal money his county receives from the state for immunization, tuberculosis treatment and emergency preparedness programs.

“We have one of the fastest-growing populations in the state of Texas,” Olivarez said. “It’s essential that we get the numbers accurate so that we can ensure the proper public health, wellness and security of our community.”

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