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NM aims to foster trust in census

Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal, left, and Pojoaque Pueblo special projects coordinator Gabe Montoya stand near a nondenominational sanctuary in Pojoaque earlier this month. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal, left, and Pojoaque Pueblo special projects coordinator Gabe Montoya stand near a nondenominational sanctuary in Pojoaque earlier this month. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

POJOAQUE – Authorities in New Mexico are turning to firefighters, Native American leaders and rural irrigation associations to instill trust and promote participation in the 2020 census.

About 41% of state residents live in hard-to-count areas – the largest proportion of any state in the nation, an Associated Press analysis of government data found.

The census determines the allocation of $1.5 trillion in federal spending, and New Mexico officials estimate that a 1% undercount would cost the state more than $700 million in federal aid over a decade.

Erin Callahan – a Los Lunas official assigned to encouraging county residents to fill out census questionnaires online, by phone or by mail – said playing up the importance of the upcoming survey might easily be counterproductive.

She said many households in isolated, rural areas don’t appreciate visits from strangers, don’t have an official street address and may not be able to readily connect to the internet. So her county’s “complete count” committee – one of 33 across the state – plans to provide kiosks with internet access at public libraries and fire stations starting in March.

“Part of the census message this year is you can take it online and then nobody will come knock on your door,” Callahan said. “We have a number of communities that are fairly isolated and have populations that don’t necessarily want to interact with the government.”

Remote desert communities, gaps in communications infrastructure and households that primarily speak Spanish and Native American languages pose special challenges for census-takers, demographic experts say. About 10% of New Mexico residents are Native American, and more than 40% identify themselves as Hispanic.

State demographer and population studies expert Robert Rhatigan said another concern is accounting for oil-sector workers in the southeastern part of the state amid record-breaking oil and gas production. He said they may not think of New Mexico as their permanent home.

“It comes down to the simple question of where you are sleeping most of the time,” he said. “Some people take issue with that. Many people pay their taxes in another community, even though they’re here.”

Rhatigan cited research showing that the most effective pitches for census participation focus on connections between federal spending and a local school, medical clinic or senior center.

“You make it about the community and kids, not about civic duty,” he said.

New Mexico is distributing $3.4 million to help counties, public schools and Native American communities encourage participation in the census. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is seeking another $8 million.

In the Native American community at Pojoaque Pueblo, tribal official Gabe Montoya has been recruited by county officials to promote census participation. He says an introduction by a few well-known, local voices will help get an accurate count in the local checkerboard of indigenous and non-tribal households.

“That’s going to break the ice immediately,” he said.

Marcela Díaz, executive director of the immigrant-rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said her group is working to encourage census participation and identify what keeps some people away, with door-to-door canvassing in four counties.

She believes a thwarted attempt by the Trump administration to include a citizenship question on the census could make it difficult to get an accurate count near the border with Mexico. She said immigrants are wary of local governments where police have cooperated closely with federal immigration authorities.

“We’re saying, ‘Get ready; this is confidential; there is no citizenship question.’ People generally won’t open the door if it’s a federal government worker or it they suspect that it could be ICE,” Díaz said, referring to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

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