Border leaders counting on last-minute cash, prizes to entice South Texans to fill out census

Border Report

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — It was a Hail Mary of sorts, but South Texas border leaders say raffling cruise tickets, hotel stays, celebrity meet-and-greets, and even a grand prize of $10,000 through telethons and other events are worth it if get residents to fill out the 2020 Census form.

At the McAllen Performing Arts Center on Thursday, dozens of employees from the City of McAllen sat on the stage manning a day-long telethon event. Every once in a while, someone would ring a bell indicating that they had registered another person for the 2020 Census.

Everyone from Hidalgo and Starr counties who registered at RGV2020.com was entered into a mega-raffle for prizes that have been donated from several cities, Hidalgo County, and other organizations.

Several South Texas cities — from Laredo to Pharr — hosted similar census giveaways, offering free chicken dinners, $100 gift certificates to local restaurants, free paletas (popsicles) and even a signed accordion by Norteño legend Ramon Ayala. The measures seem far-reaching, some say, but between the high number of undocumented migrants living in the area who are fearful to fill out the form, and the region’s staggering high rates of COVID-19, leaders said they are willing to try almost anything.

“We want to make sure that we sign up everybody now. We don’t want to wait until the last minute and we’re hoping this telethon and raffle will encourage those last-minute people who still don’t understand, or just haven’t made the time,” said Xochitl Mora, director of communications for the City of McAllen.

These really are the last hours and days to fill out the 2020 Census, since the Trump administration has decided to end the count early on Sept. 30, instead of Oct. 31. A federal judge in California, however, could rule Thursday or Friday to extend the count period.

As of Thursday, 60.2% of residents in McAllen had self-reported, which is down from the 65% who had self-reported at this same time during the 2010 Census, said Mora, who chairs the McAllen Complete Census Count Committee.

But the total reporting numbers are much higher for the area, Mora said, because when information garnered by census takers and other community volunteers who help people to fill out the questionnaires is added, then McAllen has a total response rate to date of 95.4%. Hidalgo County has a total response rate of 94.6%, and that is just down slightly from the total estimated response rate for the state of Texas, which currently is 97%, according to Census Bureau data.

Nevertheless, they are pulling out all the stops and doing whatever possible to get residents to fill out the nine-question form before next Thursday.

“The whole idea is just to encourage those who wait to the last minute, who may have doubts, who may still not understand why it’s still important to fill out the Census and we want to reward them,” Mora said.

Nationwide, over 92% of U.S. households have been accounted for, census officials said last week.

In the Rio Grande Valley, many families are undocumented and won’t fill out a census form because they are afraid that the information will be used by government officials to locate and deport them.

Mora stressed that “all responses are confidential,” however many residents remain fearful, and recent actions by the Trump administration don’t help to encourage them, migrant advocates say.

In 2019, President Donald Trump requested citizenship information on the census form, but that was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this week, after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Trump administration filed court papers asking the Supreme Court to fast-track another case it has filed to exclude people from filling out the form if they are not U.S. citizens.

Federal funding formulas are dependent upon population counts and that means that if areas are under-counted then it won’t receive the adequate money due. U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, says that for every 1,000 households not counted, the region stands to lose $150 million in federal funds.

Also, congressional representation is based on the census count and Texas could gain additional seats in the House of Representatives if everyone is counted, state and local officials say.

Thursday’s last-ditch effort and “friendly competition” among communities to bring up the numbers, appears to be working. Just a month ago, only 47% of households in Hidalgo County had signed up.

“The idea is a friendly competition, of course, because we all win if every community has every person living there get signed up for the Census,” Mora said.

To fill out the 2020 Census online, or for more information, go to 2020Census.gov.

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