THE PERFECT CENSUS STORM

José López Zamorano | La Red Hispana 
Photo Credit: La Red Hispana

A perfect storm hits Puerto Rico again, but it is not a natural disaster but rather a perverse combination of factors that could cause a proportion of the residents of Isla del Encanto to not be counted for the purposes of the crucial 2020 Census.

Less than two months before the deadline to complete the census form on September 30, after the Trump administration surprisingly decided to shorten the deadline by one month, only 28.3% of the island’s residents have sent their response. This is the lowest percentage of any ethnic group in the United States, according to updated official figures from the Census Bureau.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the first problem, complicated by the fact that the recent natural disasters that hit Puerto Rico had caused massive displacement of the population that lost homes or left the island, making it necessary to initiate a rigorous verification of current addresses.

But in March, a day after the enumerators began their mobilization on the island, the government of Puerto Rico suspended operations. Residents of the island watched on television or listened to the ads for the multi-million-dollar ad campaign to fill out the Census questionnaire but did not have the package in their hands.

Some 10,000 enumerators returned to the streets in May to drop off the packages and managed to complete that part of the process at the end of June, however, the Census Bureau officials themselves acknowledge that they lost their “momentum”. The numbers speak for themselves. The proportion of residents who have completed the forms so far is half that of those who did in the 2010 Census and less than half the national average, which is over 60%.

Although the Census Bureau increased the budget for electronic and digital advertising during the summer and updated its messages to take into account the fear and concern of the population about COVID-19 infections, the actual figures for filling out the form suggest that the response of the Puerto Rican population has fallen below official expectations.

Perhaps recognizing that the initial media strategy did not meet its objectives, the Census decided to recruit the support of “influencers”.

All of which make the decision to advance the deadline for collecting information one month, combined with the controversial Trump administration memorandum to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count for purposes of redefining US electoral districts in 2021.

The official argument of the Trump administration is that it has a legal mandate to complete the census count by December 31, 2020, but since last May the deputy director of the census office for field operations Timothy Olson had said that it was no longer possible to stick to the schedule.

Although initially the Secretary of Commerce asked Congress for an extension of four months for the delivery of the results, the recent actions of the Census suggest that they adhere to the legal calendar, with the new deadline to complete the data collection stage on September 30, despite the fact that the pandemic has disrupted original plans.

The House of Representatives took action on the matter by including an extension of the census until April 30, 2021 in the initiative of the Heroes Act, but the negotiations with the Senate and the White House not only remain stalled, but also led to President Trump to approve a partial relief package over the weekend through an executive order, which could be challenged in court on constitutional grounds.

Beyond the unique case of Puerto Rico, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) warns that meeting the new deadlines involves sacrificing Census accuracy, wasting $ 16 billion and causing the exclusion of historically undercounted groups including Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, rural populations, low-income households, and children. Who benefits from that?

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Census 2020Opinion

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