In 2020 census, Presidio sees opportunities — and risks

In a unanimous vote last Wednesday, Presidio City Council voted to establish and fund a “complete count committee” to help ensure the border city’s population is accurately counted during the 2020 census.

PRESIDIO — In a unanimous vote last Wednesday, Presidio City Council voted to establish and fund a “complete count committee” to help ensure the border city’s population is accurately counted during the 2020 census.

Completed once every 10 years, the census can affect everything from regional funding to the number and size of voting districts. But rural, Hispanic and border communities have long been “undercounted,” said City Administrator Jose “Joe” Portillo — and the cash-strapped city of Presidio checks all those boxes.

“What does that mean? It means we lose out on opportunities,” he said. “I think we all understand the importance of this.”

The city could stand to lose around $1,600 per year in federal money for every resident who isn’t counted during the next census, he said.

In a vote, the council agreed to spend $2000 to help raise awareness about the census, including outreach efforts that convey the importance of a good count, especially among hard-to-reach and/or non-English-speaking residents. Mayor John Ferguson suggested they advertise on Ojinaga radio stations in an effort to reach Spanish speakers.

By last Thursday, Presidio was already on the list of complete count committees on the U.S. Census Bureau website. City Administrator Portillo is listed as the point of contact.

Complete count committees aren’t limited to Presidio, nor are they a new concept. They’ve been around since at least the 1990s, after researchers in California noticed what appeared to be a huge undercounting in the state’s 1990 census — costing the state billions of dollars in withheld federal money. The U.S. Census Bureau now lists hundreds of such committees on its website.

According to the United States Census Bureau, “a Complete Count Committee is comprised of a broad spectrum of government and community leaders from advocacy, education, business, healthcare, and elected officials.” The bureau’s website goes on to say that this committee “develops and implements a 2020 Census awareness campaign based upon their knowledge of the local community to encourage a response.”

But the issue of census undercounts has taken on a new, more partisan tone in recent years, after the Trump Administration announced in 2018 that it planned to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census — raising fears that non-residents or naturalized citizens would be scared to join the national population count. Federal judges in August blocked the Trump Administration from including the question on the actual census, but the U.S. Census Bureau is still including the question on other surveys.

Worries remain, though, that the chatter around a citizenship question — coupled with the Trump Administration’s harsh policies towards migrants and undocumented immigrants — has already dissuaded immigrants from responding. Mayor John Ferguson touched on these concerns at the council meeting, saying it was “critical” for Presidio to get its count right “in light of the nonsense that was coming out about the citizenship question.”

“There’s gonna be people who are hesitant to want to get counted,” he added.

The U.S. Census Bureau is looking to hire around 100 workers in Presidio, paying them $15.50 an hour, Ferguson said. He urged trusted community members to sign up, in hopes that familiar faces would help persuade census-shy residents to get counted.

But the citizenship question is not the only issue causing headaches for Presidio leaders as they work to determine accurate population figures. While many Americans will be able to participate in the 2020 census online, it is only allowed if someone’s mailing address matches their physical residence – and is not an option in Presidio, which (like Marfa) only accepts regular mail at P.O. boxes.

At the city council meeting, Brad Newton, executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District, also pointed out that many Presidio locals find work in the oil hub of Midland-Odessa, and may end up getting counted as residents there instead.

Newton stressed that Presidio cannot advertise this issue or otherwise try to sway Presidio residents to count themselves in the border city rather than the Permian Basin. But judging from the tenor of the meeting, Presidio city officials hope locals will count the border town as their home.

City Administrator Portillo acknowledged that $2000 wasn’t “a huge amount of money,” and stated that setting up a committee was also about “just the spirit of it.”

“That’s how important this is,” he said.