By Paul J. Weber
The Associated Press
LAREDO, Texas (AP) — Police cars and large white vans rumbled down the unpaved road toward the ramshackle houses, where illegal immigrants are among hundreds living in a slapdash Texas neighborhood, or colonia, called San Carlos.
U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves emerged from the caravan on Feb. 1 with a message: You can trust us.
His entrance didn’t convince everyone.
“When they saw the uniforms of the sheriff’s department, some got scared,” said Maria Aguirre, a longtime resident of San Carlos, which she said has about 300 people.
That anxiety among immigrants illustrates one of the biggest obstacles facing the Census Bureau this year which is persuading those residents most afraid of the government to participate in the decennial count.
The stakes are high. An accurate head count in the 2010 census could mean millions more in federal dollars for a community or redrawing legislative boundaries. Undercounting could leave states shortchanged.
Border counties, flush with residents fearful of being turned over to immigration agents, are historically among the most undercounted. The Census Bureau ranks Webb County — where Laredo is located — among the nation’s hardest-to-count areas, joining a list that includes rural places in Alaska and South Dakota.
Speaking to about a dozen colonia residents, many of whom only speak Spanish, Groves tried to allay their fears. He stressed that census data will be kept confidential and will not be turned over to other agencies.
“If the president asked me for your census form, I can say, ‘No, you can’t get it,’” Groves told the crowd. “If I violate that law, I can go to prison.”
Groves visited the colonia with Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who said his district, which includes Laredo, lost more than $55 million in federal dollars during the last census because of undercounting.
An estimated 373,000 people in Texas weren’t counted in the 2000 census. Cuellar said Texas could pick up as many as four congressional seats if every household is properly counted.
Cuellar told colonia residents that citizenship status is not asked on the 10-question form, the shortest in census history. Seventy percent of recent population growth in Texas is Latino, Cuellar said.
“This is where the greatest needs are,” Cuellar said. “Look at the poverty level. A lot of these folks make less than $10,000 a year.”
Colonias — Spanish for “neighborhoods” — began appearing in Texas in the 1950s, when developers found they could sell land deemed useless for agriculture to immigrants eager for something to call their own.
Plots were sold without water lines, sewers, or trash collection services.
Laws have since been passed to improve conditions in colonias. But conditions remain rough and poor.
Neighboring the San Carlos colonia are a landfill and wrecker yards for junk cars.
Aguirre, a mother of two who has lived in San Carlos since she was 12, said distrust of authority runs deep among residents. When people leave to buy food, for instance, Aguirre said they wait until patrol cars have made their rounds.
“They don’t walk to the store,” Aguirre said. “They kind of rush.”
A report released earlier this month by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund criticized the Census Bureau for not doing enough to reassure immigrants that the count isn’t an investigation.
Groves said the bureau is trying to get that message across through advertising as the count gets under way in most of the country next month. But he said familiar faces will have the biggest impact.
Groves, for instance, likely wouldn’t have been greeted by many people were it not for a trusted colonia resident who reassured her neighbors.
“When it comes down to the decision of should I open my door to a census taker or not, I think, overwhelmingly, the most powerful thing is hearing the words from a trusted voice,” Groves said. ♦