Editor’s note: This piece was written in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review and the Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School. The project focuses on the stories and conversations going on in communities leading up to the November election. Additionally, it was published in CJR before the latest news about the Supreme Court halting the census.
It has truly been a year full of fear in South Texas, particularly in Hidalgo County, which has had the second-most coronavirus-related deaths out of the 254 Texas counties. But the coronavirus pandemic has just been the latest in a series of catastrophic events to strike this often forgotten and isolated part of the country. This year also included a Census boondoggle, which could have lasting repercussions well after the November 3 election.
At the beginning of 2020, this region, like many American cities, was preparing for the upcoming decennial Census count. The local congressmen touted the importance of the count, saying that every 1,000 households missed in the count could cost the region $150 million in federal resources. A study by the GW Institute of Public Policy found that a population undercount of just one percent could cost the state at least $300 million annually. But just as the Census count was kicking off in March, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Our region went into lockdown and precautionary measures staved off a significant spread of the deadly novel virus. But in May, Governor Greg Abbott ordered that the state begin to reopen in phases, and that’s when the virus came roiling into our homes and workplaces.
Although Hidalgo County has only 860,000 residents (according to the latest Census count), there have been over 33,300 coronavirus cases in the county and 1,850 deaths, second only to Harris County, which includes the Houston area. In mid-July, the Wall Street Journal reported that Houston was averaging two deaths per 100,000 people; Texas overall had three deaths per 100,000. But Hidalgo County had seventeen deaths per 100,000 people.
Hospitals and medical staff have been overwhelmed and lack the resources needed to treat cases. Medical authorities attribute the higher levels here to co-morbidities and existing conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity, which complicate and make the virus more difficult to fight and treat.
Many of these conditions are a product of the abject poverty that so many Rio Grande Valley residents live in—one-third to be exact. The median income is just $37,582, according to 2018 Census data. That translates into poor diets for many who are unable to afford healthier foods. Many people work multiple jobs and do not have the time or the means to exercise.
That is why the federal monies tied to the 2020 Census count are so important, and yet it is almost certain that many here will not be counted. There are several reasons for this. For example, undocumented residents fear filling out the Census questionnaire. And although Census officials have assured the public that no information will be shared with other government agencies, many families here don’t believe that. And why should they after the Trump administration tried to get a citizenship question put on the Census last summer? Although the US Supreme Court blocked the administration from adding the question, the administration’s intent was made clear, and many undocumented families became scared.
Aware of their concerns, and the real dollars at stake, leaders in the Rio Grande Valley banded together and formed coalitions and task forces aimed at getting into communities and stressing the importance, and confidentiality, of filling out the Census. But when COVID-19 hit, all plans were lost, as one city leader told me. It didn’t take long for Census officials to extend the count through October 31. But then, in what seemed like an obvious move to undercount low-income regions that need the extra time the most, the Trump administration declared that the count would stop a month earlier and end in September instead.
A federal judge ordered that the count must continue through the end of October, but by the time the ruling came out the damage had already been done because all of the salaried Census workers in the Rio Grande Valley were already let go, the former spokeswoman told me. Remaining on the ground are hourly door-knockers but there is no local organizational leadership structure to steer this ship.
In a last-ditch effort to reach residents, the Census bureau began mailing out the nine-question forms to PO boxes, which was something they originally said they would not do in order to maintain count accuracy. Area nonprofits also began helping officials by block-walking in some of the poorest colonias, or neighborhoods, despite real fears of catching the virus, which remains quite prevalent here.
US Representatives Vicente Gonzalez and Henry Cuellar, both Democrats who represent South Texas, called on the Trump administration to extend the count through the end of the year. Gonzalez said that while the Constitution mandates a Census be held every ten years, there is no rule that decides when the count must stop. But the Census spokeswoman told me that in order for Census officials to have time enough to compile all of the gathered data and to present it to Congress by the December 31 deadline, they must end the count by the end of October.
Cities began holding day-long Census telethons with phone banks staffed by area mayors and local celebrities, and offering cash and prizes to those who called in their information. It seemed like all forms of Hail Marys have been thrown in these last weeks to try and identify everyone who lives here.
Aside from federal funding, the Census count also is tied to the number of congressional seats for each state. The 2010 Census resulted in an addition of four House seats for Texas. The state is expected to possibly gain four again, or even as many as six, but that will only happen if everyone is counted.
Additional representation in Congress is essential for this part of the state. Our current lawmakers represent constituents with very different needs and interests who live hours away and hundreds of miles from each other. They range from undocumented migrants to cattle ranchers who advocate for a border wall and more border security and everything in between. Cuellar, for instance, represents the 28th congressional district, which includes the region beginning at the western town of Laredo to Mission, which is next door to McAllen, and even a part of San Antonio. Gonzalez represents the 15th congressional district, which spans from McAllen north through ranchlands to San Antonio. Additional voices in Congress could hopefully force officials to acknowledge the real economic hardships, deaths, and ongoing financial losses due to the continued border restrictions on land ports.
Since March 20, the land ports between the US and Mexico have been closed to all but “essential” workers. The Trump administration invoked a little-known public health code law, Title 42, to close the borders in order to thwart the spread of coronavirus. This has resulted in all asylum-seekers being forbidden from crossing at all—from families visiting loved ones across the Rio Grande to shoppers coming to border communities. Local cities are losing millions of dollars and they don’t know how they will make it up. The McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge reported a loss of over $2 million as of July.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling told me it’s not fair because while land ports remain closed to Mexican nationals trying to enter the United States, airports are not. “We don’t understand the government’s policy of letting Mexican nationals fly into any city,” he said, “but they cannot cross the bridge.”
US Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, recently led a bipartisan delegation that included Cuellar and Gonzalez, who sent a letter to Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf asking for a plan to reopen the land ports of entry. The letter demanded the administration “develop and publicly articulate a detailed plan, including benchmarks that must be reached, for land ports of entry along the southwest border to return to normal operations.”
It sounded tough on paper, and I expected Cornyn, who is seeking his fourth term this upcoming election, to tout it during his first debate with his opponent, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, last Friday. But surprisingly, the issue never came up. In fact, neither candidate discussed South Texas at all during the hour-long debate, except for a brief mention of the asylum-seekers who are forced to remain in Mexico during the pandemic and during their US immigration hearings. The border wall, the high rates of COVID deaths here, and the reopening of the border never came up.
I was in Austin covering the debate for Nexstar Media and was selected to appear on a live after-debate panel. In the moments before the program began I felt I had little to talk about and was struggling on what to say. But then Hegar was interviewed by a KXAN reporter and declared that she had wanted to talk about many other things, “including immigration.” If it was so important to her, I believe she could have found a way to work it into the conversation, I said on air.
Likewise, immigration and the border wall never came up during the first—and possibly only—presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. The absence of discussion only amplifies how little folks know, or seem to care, about this South Texas border region.
And unfortunately, if the number of people who really live here isn’t accurately reflected in the 2020 Census count, it will result in this area receiving less funding in the future and less representation in Washington, DC. The poverty will continue and the high obesity rates will increase, continuing to lead to more COVID-19 fatalities. For now, the Census count is limping along here, and early voting has begun.