Mike Seifert

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a two-part series about the 2010 Census in South Texas.

Before the official ensus count ended, community activists and local elected officials in the Rio Grande Valley warned that the region’s population figures would suffer from a severe undercount.

As Texas’ population figures were released Thursday, three of the Valley’s four county judges said they are likely to sue the bureau to force an adjustment in the counties’ population estimates.

According to the data, Hidalgo County saw a 36-percent increase in its population since 2000, from 569,463 to 774,769. But Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said he thinks the figure stands at closer to 1 million.

San Antonio-based attorney Rolando Rios said the undercount in Valley colonias — communities along the Texas-Mexico border — is not surprising.

“Decade after decade, this happens,” said Rios, who has been involved in census disputes in South Texas since the 1970s. “There are always mistakes when [the census] comes down here.”

Rios said Valley lawyers must make the case that the population in Valley counties has boomed more than the bureau thought. If the bureau’s neighborhood data estimates that 10 people live on a certain block in Hidalgo County, for example, the lawyers must go to the block and physically count the number of people they see living there.

The Equal Voice Network, a cohort of local groups that have worked in the colonias for decades, offers services and community support for the low-income, often migrant workers that live there.

“An undercount is bad news,” said Mike Seifert, the network’s spokesman. “But down here, it’s like a hurricane you don’t recover from.”

The network was been involved in a months-long media campaign in the colonias, where the bureau was supposed to mail out the forms. But colonia residents began contacting some community groups because they did not receive any forms, and some reported unannounced visits from census workers. The network demanded a meeting with the highest leadership in the bureau.

When U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves arrived from Washington, D.C. on April 17, he faced a tense meeting with the network and other community volunteers.

“Too many people and too short of time to deal with this,” according to Seifert’s minutes. “We were misled from the beginning. The Census Bureau needs to take responsibility that they were engaged in a yearlong misinformation campaign.”

The networks also urged bureau officials to allow colonia leaders to accompany the door-to-door counters — a suggestion the bureau rejected citing confidentiality concerns. In the meeting, Groves said allowing some of the community groups to help with the count could appear as preferential treatment.

“Of course, that’s what we want,” Seifert said. “We want them to go out of their way to count down here, because it is so difficult.”

Every step of the way, census representatives said they did exactly that. Calling it “the Cadillac” of enumeration plans, the door-to-door method is the most costly but the most accurate, said Gabriel Sanchez, the bureau’s regional director.

But target advertising is not easy for the bureau, which must distribute materials to communities across the nation. Sanchez said the bureau spent $600 million on the national advertising campaign. Most of the census posters and other literature distributed to colonia community groups were the same mailed to other regions that received mail-in forms.

“It’s kind of hard to segregate the public message when people are every day being bombarded with, ‘Mail it back, mail it back,’” Sanchez said. “It’s very hard to segregate that message and make sure you only hear what’s important to you.”

This series is made possible by the Helen M. Powell Traveling Fellowship.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part series about the 2010 census in South Texas.

A group of long-standing community groups and local officials are ramping up their charge of a massive undercount of South Texas colonias, the low-income communities along the Texas-Mexico border. The move comes after the U.S. Census Bureau released preliminary figures Thursday of the 2010 census, including county breakdowns in Texas.

The Rio Grande Valley, the state’s southernmost region, includes four counties and is home to more than 1 million Texans. In Hidalgo County, the Valley’s most populous, the estimated population in 2000 stood at 569,463, according to census data. Preliminary 2010 census data places the number at 774,769.

Texas boasts more colonias than any other state and the largest colonia population in the nation. More than half of the 400,000 Texans that live in these communities are located in the Valley, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s website.

A network of 11 community groups called Equal Voice Network have worked in the communities for decades and volunteered their help as the bureau began to count the colonias. The groups include some of the most notable of the Mexican-American civil rights era, including La Unión del Pueblo Entero, which César Chávez founded, and ARISE, an empowerment group for colonia women.

“We know these places,” said Mike Seifert, the network’s spokesman. “We know what we’re doing here, and it’s that truth the Census Bureau should remember whenever they’re dealing with us.”

Colonias started gaining popularity in the 1950s, when property developers bought cheap, low-lying land not viable for agricultural production — usually in rural and unincorporated areas — to build houses that often lacked proper infrastructure. The 2,294 colonias in Texas remain an affordable housing option for the state’s low-income families, most notably Hispanic migrant workers and illegal immigrants.

Colonia communities continue to face issues with access to basic amenities, including potable water, electricity and indoor plumbing. Heavy rainfall, for example, will leave some areas flooded for months because of the lack of basic irrigation and drainage systems.

Still, in the past 30 years, colonia residents have organized to get some basic necessities, including their mail, which was key when the 2010 census was set to begin.

The bureau prepared for a large-scale public relations campaign in South Texas, including the colonias. Valley lawmakers and community groups said the Census Bureau told them in January 2010 that colonia residents would receive their forms in their mailboxes.

The media campaign, particularly in Hidalgo County colonias, focused on how easy it was to complete and return the form. The community groups also emphasized that the forms were confidential (no U.S. citizenship questions) and important to return (the census count would determine the allocation of federal funds).

U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-McAllen, distributed 100,000 bilingual fliers about the mail-in form to colonia residents in his district. Seifert credited the community outreach effort — most of it done four months before Census Day — with educating colonia residents about the importance of returning the form. He said the bureau provided adequate resources to help the groups, including census literature and trained personnel.

“The initial response we got from residents was, ‘We wanted to be counted,’” he said. “The census did a great job of having people on the ground.”

However, about a week before Census Day, April 1, colonias contacted some community groups because they did not receive any forms. Some reported unannounced visits from census workers.

“It was on April 1. We thought that was kind of ironic — looking back on it — that it was April Fool’s Day because we didn’t think it was really funny that we got contacted that they were not mailing them out to the colonias, that they were going to walk the colonias,” said Ann Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azeteca, another community group in the network.

Gabriel Sanchez, the Census regional director in Dallas, said the bureau has used door-to-door updates for the South Texas colonias since the 1970s.

“We’ve always done it like that down there because it is so difficult to count,” he said. “

Sanchez said the bureau finalized the door-to-door count, officially called Update/Enumerate, in February 2009.

As the groups scrambled to change their message, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves arrived in the Valley, facing a tough crowd.

This series is made possible by the Helen M. Powell Traveling Fellowship.