The 2020 census has been marred by challenges. Census workers across the U.S. are waiting to see when in-person counting must end. The Census Bureau cut counting short this year, but that’s currently being challenged in the courts. As we wait for a decision, KAZU News checked in with those responsible for getting a complete count in Monterey County.
When Monterey County employee Rosemary Soto was asked to lead the Census Complete Count Committee she was hesitant.
“I really... I resisted because I felt like the biggest hypocrite,” said Soto.
But in many ways she was the ideal candidate to help increase the county’s response rate. Why? Because she’s never taken part in the Census.
“In the 2000 census I remember very clearly I was a teen and I told my family, you know, ‘No, don't… don't give your information to the government’,” Soto said.
She knows what it’s like to be part of what the census calls "Hard-To-Count" populations.
“I grew up in a community, an environment where you are very wary about government, about law enforcement, about anything to do with authority,” said Soto.
She remembers one of her high school friends signing up to be a census worker 20 years ago and knocking on her door multiple times.
“She came back three times. And then the third time I just told her, girl, I just... don't even bother. We’re not going to complete the Census,” Soto said.
She and her family feared the repercussions of sharing their information.
“We had individuals who had felony backgrounds or were still in the system in some way," she said. "And we have, you know, immigrant members of our family."
Soto said she had a huge lack of awareness of how the law protects the privacy of Census participants. Even when the 2010 census came around she didn’t take part in that one either.
But it is with this intimate knowledge of historically undercounted communities that she and her team set out to get a complete count this year.
Education has been essential in these efforts, like tailoring the messaging for specific communities. Training census workers to be mindful of the fears of participants and to not dismiss them has also been key. And when workers hit the streets in census caravans, they adapted their routes to streets that haven’t taken part.
But it hasn’t been easy. A global pandemic that delayed on-the-ground operations; door knocking potentially being cut short; and the legal challenges about how immigrants will be counted in the census.
The Trump administration's attempt to add a citizenship question was blocked by the courts more than a year ago. Still, it created a lot of increased fear in the community, Soto said.
Then the president issued a memo recently saying undocumented workers shouldn’t be included in numbers used to divide up seats in Congress. Monterey County joined a lawsuit to challenge this.
Speaking before a decision was made by the courts, Luis Alejo, county supervisor and Census Steering Committee member, said, "We think we're going to be able to prevail on this legal question too. It's unconstitutional. Everyone has to be counted regardless of their immigration status. And it's a good fight that we're willing to take on," said Alejo.
Last Thursday, the courts agreed. They blocked the Trump administration's efforts.
Not including the undocumented community is a particular concern for Monterey County, said Alejo.
“We’re the county with the largest percentage of noncitizens out of any county in California,” said Alejo.
The Supervisor is referring here to census data analyzed by the L.A Times in 2018.
“That is not only going to hurt our county in particular, but certainly California could risk losing one or perhaps even two congressional seats,” said Alejo.
Alejo said a lot of damage has already been done, but he is optimistic.
“We know that because of all these nasty efforts at the federal level, we got more work ahead of us and we can't give up. We're going to make use of every single day that we can to count as many people as we can here locally,” said Alejo.
In 2010 Monterey County’s response rate was 64.4%. And for every person who isn’t counted, that’s a loss of thousands of dollars for everything from schools to roads. But this year we can be sure there is one person who will be counted who’s never been counted before. That’s Census Complete Count Committee lead Rosemary Soto.
“I did it. It was my first time and I did celebrate a little bit. So my household has been counted,” Soto said.
As of September 14, Monterey County’s response rate was 64.0 percent. You can check out Monterey County’s current response rate by clicking here.
To take part in the 2020 Census click here.