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Navajo Nation joins lawsuit over US Census deadline

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Navajo Nation has joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce alleging that the agencies are implementing a “rush plan” to complete 2020 Census data collection by Sept. 30.

The reservation had an 18.6% self-response rate to the census as of Wednesday, according to Census Bureau data. The national self-response rate was 65.2%.

Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer said limited internet and phone service on the reservation makes completing the census difficult.

“Shortening the census time frame only adds to the challenges … especially for our elder population and those who live in remote areas,” Lizer said in a statement.

Online responses account for less than 4% of Navajo self-responses.

The Census Bureau suspended field operations in April because of the pandemic and asked for congressional approval to extend the data collection deadline from July 31 to Oct. 31, 2020.

But on Aug. 3, the Census Bureau set a new deadline of Sept. 30. A news release said the new plan would “meet a similar level of household responses as collected in prior censuses, including outreach to hard-to-count communities.”

The reversal could result in a “massive under count” of communities of color, reads the lawsuit, originally filed Aug. 18 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

“The federal government’s attempt to rush the census count poses a grave threat to all the vital functions that rely on census data, from reapportioning the United States House of Representatives and redrawing state and local electoral districts, to equitably distributing over $1.5 trillion annually in federal funds that support basic needs such as food, health care, and education,” the lawsuit states.

The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted door-to-door operations and reduced the number of census workers on the Navajo Nation, said Arbin Mitchell, Navajo area census office manager.

“We have a possibility of not finishing (our work),” Mitchell said during a Tuesday video update.

Navajo census workers are helping residents complete forms at grocery stores and community centers on the reservation.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Gila River Indian Community, several voting rights groups and a handful of cities and counties in California, Illinois and Washington.

The lawsuit requests that the Census Bureau implement its original pandemic-adjusted timeline to allow for a “full, fair and accurate count.”

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