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The Already Underserved Rio Grande Valley Fears Census Undercounting, Unfair Redistricting

A U.S. Census worker goes door to door.
U.S. Census Bureau

As Texas lawmakers prepare to redraw political district maps with new census population data, some community leaders of the Rio Grande Valley fear they will get the short end of the stick.

During a Texas Senate redistricting committee hearing on Tuesday, Valley officials raised concerns about the possibility that the region, already deemed underserved, will lose out on resources because of undercounting in the 2020 census.

The census, a count of people living in the U.S. completed every decade, is used to determine government funding and congressional seats. It also serves as the basis for federal, state and local political districts, State Demographer Lloyd Potter explained at the hearing, which focused on the Rio Grande Valley.

Potter said Latinos are driving Texas’ growth and are set to become the state’s majority later this year. In the Rio Grande Valley, he said, the counties of Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr have continued to grow, but some counties “north of the Rio Grande” have lost population.

“Those areas that have lost population, the redistricting committees will need to draw larger boundaries,” he said. “And these areas where we’ve seen real significant population growth, the boundaries will need to be smaller and smaller.”

U.S. Census Bureau worker Marisela Gonzales adjusts a sign at a walk-up counting site for the 2020 census in Greenville, Texas, in July.
LM Otero
U.S. Census Bureau worker Marisela Gonzales adjusts a sign at a walk-up counting site for the 2020 census in Greenville, a town in North Texas, in July. Officials from the Rio Grande Valley are concerned an undercount in their South Texas region may deprive it of financial resources and fair political representation.

The predominantly Latino area also continues diversifying with the non-Hispanic white population declining in counties such as Hidalgo.

“And then we’re also seeing pretty significant increases in the other race, ethnic groups,” Potter said.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., who represents the Valley counties of Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy, asked Potter to confirm that the Valley “is the fastest-growing region that is predominantly economically challenged, and our ethnic composition is predominantly Hispanic descent, which is among the poorest regions in Texas, if not the nation.”

Potter said many regions in Texas could face an undercount but agreed that the Valley has persistently been at the “lower end of the socio-economic spectrum when compared to other areas in the state.” He added that it faces census outreach challenges, such as many households where Spanish is the primary or only language and colonias, or rural communities, that may not have mailable addresses.

“If we looked at the social and economic characteristics of the population that live in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and we look at historically undercounted populations … I would expect there to be some undercount in the lower Rio Grande Valley after we've had the opportunity to look at the data from the 2020 census,” Potter said.

Lucio said he worried that the census’ pandemic-delayed door-knocking efforts to reach hard to count communities had resulted in outreach from workers not bilingual or as knowledgeable about the area.

“I have heard concerns from my community that when the door to door knocking finally occurred, unfortunately, they were not undertaken by the original census workers who had been comprehensively trained,” he said. “Rather, it was a different group of individuals who were subsequently hired and who may have not been bilingual and not as well trained as the original census workers.”

Potter said he was not aware of those concerns but said that the Texas Demographic Center had worked closely with the Census Bureau to create an “as complete of a list of housing units” for outreach efforts.

Census Bureau spokeswoman Bianca Gamez said in a statement that “due to a shift in staff there were selected areas throughout the region who were sent help” where there were not enough workers for the enumeration process, which consists of following up in person with households who did not complete census self-response forms.

For the Rio Grande Valley, “a lot of the workers came from the San Antonio area and parts of Texas and we made sure they were bilingual,” she said, adding that they were able to obtain information from 99.9% of the households in that area.

Potter said the Texas Demographic Center and the Census Bureau conduct assessments of the accuracy of the census after the data is released.

Lucio wasn’t the only official with undercounting concerns. Harlingen Mayor Christopher Boswell told senators that the city had conducted its own population estimates. He believed they had been previously underrepresented by both the Census Bureau and the Texas Demographic Center.

“As a whole, our region is undercounted, and we hope that as we move through this process, adjustments can be made to recognize the large population in the Rio Grande Valley and in the city of Harlingen,” he said.

Jolene Almendarez | Texas Public Radio
Despite the efforts to encourage residents to get counted, an incomplete census hampered by COVID-19 restrictions and staffing issues concern Rio Grande Valley officials.

Michael Seifert, a resident of Brownsville, asked the redistricting committee to ensure transparency and time for public input in the process of redrawing political districts.

“We need the right to elect people who can focus on our issues and needs,” he said. “The present election maps, however, do not respect this right for our needs.”

He pointed to Texas’ 34th Congressional District, which stretches from the border counties of Cameron and Hidalgo all the way up to the more inland and northern Gonzales and Bee counties.

“Those places are near no border nor the sea,” Seiffert said. “They have their own struggles with poverty, but that poverty is a different face and needs a different kind of advocacy than ours. Both communities deserve effective representation that can respond to those needs.”

Texas lawmakers have repeatedly been found by courts to have drawn faulty political districts that twist and curve throughout the state and dilute the vote of non-white communities, particularly of Latinos. This year, critics have pointed out that COVID-19 limitations and delays could further shut out constituents from the process.

On Thursday, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan announced Rep. Todd Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican, would chair the House Redistricting Committee and lead the redrawing of state representative districts.

A court said Texas lawmakers, including Hunter, gerrymandered districts in Nueces County in 2011 “to further undermine Latino voting strength,” the Texas Tribune reported. The Senate redistricting committee is chaired by Republican Joan Huffman of Houston, Rio Grande Valley Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa serves as vice-chair and Sen. Lucio is a member.

The Legislature will have to convene in a special session in the fall to redraw maps once census data for redistricting is released after July 31, Potter said.

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María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria