Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Last time that he responded to the U.S. Census, in 2010, LoRenzo Bates spoke to a census-taker outside his home in Upper Fruitland on the Navajo Nation who asked all the necessary questions.
But the former speaker of the Navajo Nation said, so far, he hasn’t had a chance to fill anything out.
“There hasn’t been anyone around my place,” he said.
For over a month, field operations for the U.S. Census Bureau have been suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
This means that field workers, including those in New Mexico’s tribal governments, had only three days to distribute census packets, which contain the codes necessary to fill out the census, to residents.
Nationwide, around 5% of people receive census information through packets delivered to their door, a process called “update leave.” In New Mexico, more than 17% of residents are considered update leave.
Update leave is usually used for people without traditional “city-style” addresses, who rely on nearby landmarks to indicate where they live.
“Almost across the board, all tribal communities fall within that category,” said Jose Viramontes, spokesperson for iCount NM.
As a result, Native American communities have some of the lowest response rates for the census so far as many residents still have not received their packets.
In the Navajo Nation, stretching 27,000 square miles across three states, the response rate is 0.5%. Other tribal communities, such as the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Kewa Pueblo, have response rates below 3%. Some pueblos, among them Tesuque and Picuris, have rates between 7-10%.
Some pueblos, such as Pojoaque and Nambé, have response rates of 20% or more, due primarily to access to the internet and city-style addresses not available in other tribal lands.
Ahtza Chavez, executive director for the Native American Voters Alliance Education Project, has been organizing census efforts in tribal communities for months. She said coronavirus has thrown a wrench in their efforts. Currently, the statewide response rate in tribal communities is 10.94%, she said.
“Although some of those members have responded, they’re not necessarily responding in the numbers that you would normally see if COVID had not happened,” she said.
For many tribal communities, an undercount can result in thousands or even millions of dollars in federal funding lost for the next decade.
Prior to the outbreak, most of the strategy to increase turnout for the census revolved around in-person contact and events. Now, that’s on hold, as nearly all pueblos and tribal nations have closed their borders.
Chavez, a member of Kewa Pueblo, said she was not allowed to enter the pueblo to give her mother supplies.
Many tribal nations – including the Navajo Nation, Zia Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo – have recently seen spikes in COVID-19 cases. The number of COVID-related deaths in the Navajo Nation is greater than 13 other states combined, according to The New York Times.
And while field operations are currently scheduled to resume June 1, Chavez said the Census Bureau needs to coordinate with tribal governments before starting up again.
“That’s something people forget, that they are sovereign nations,” she said. “They do have the right to say, ‘No, no one can come in.’ ”
Jerome Garza, assistant regional census manager for the Census Bureau, said the federal government has tribal partnerships and plans on hiring Native Americans to deliver packets door to door in their communities once operations resume.
However, it is unclear how easy it will be to hire census workers once restrictions are lifted. Norbert Nez, a liaison with the Bureau for the Navajo Nation, said recruiting could prove difficult, particularly in communities with significant outbreaks.
“If there are still lockdown orders, there might be problems,” he said.
Chavez believes tribal nations were not a primary concern when the Bureau decided to suspend operations.
“It was an afterthought,” she said. “I think there were people in the state of New Mexico, which probably has one of the largest populations of Native Americans, who don’t understand what a lot of our tribal nations face.”
Asked if suspending operations affected tribal communities disproportionately, Garza said he had no opinion and that the bureau did everything to protect employees and the public.
Multiple field workers for the bureau, including some from tribal nations, said they were not allowed to speak to the media.
Chavez said organizing efforts in tribal communities have proven difficult since they closed their borders. Her organization used to rely on phone banking, but that’s become less effective as more tribal members disconnect their phones.
“A lot of those phones are inoperable because people are having to choose, ‘Do I pay my rent, do I pay for food or do I keep my phone on?’ ” Chavez said.
The bureau recently extended the deadline for filling out the census from July 31 to Oct. 31. However, Chavez said funding might become an issue if they have to continue operations for another three months.
Response rates for different communities have been reported widely since being released, but Viramontes, of iCount NM, said presenting those rates can leave out the fact that many communities don’t have the materials needed to complete the census.
He said there can be a negative perception of communities with low response rates to the census.
“There tends to be (judgment), and it’s not at all that they don’t value or see the importance of the census,” he said, adding they just don’t have the materials.
A map constructed by City University of New York shows which parts of the nation primarily receive census info through the update leave process. Those same communities often have some of the lowest response rates to the 2020 census so far.
That reality is reflected even in communities with high response rates. Los Alamos County has the highest response rate in the nation at 71%, while only 0.8% of residents are on update leave. Eighteen miles away in Española, 97.5% of residents receive census packets at their door.
Even though operations are shut down for the time being, Viramontes said he believes they can still achieve a complete count in rural and tribal communities in New Mexico, but that packets are essential to making that happen.
“It doesn’t matter how much messaging you do, how many television commercials or radio ads you get out there,” he said. “Until people actually get their forms on their doorstep or in their mailbox, they’re not compelled to participate.”