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Justice Department appeals court order that census continue

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday that it would appeal a federal judge’s order preventing the Census Bureau and Department of Commerce from ending 2020 Census operations on Sept. 30.

The Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community, several voting rights groups, advocacy organizations, cities and counties had filed a lawsuit alleging that the agencies’ “rush plan” would lead to a “massive undercount” of communities of color.

“An undercount in any locality matters greatly,” Judge Lucy H. Koh wrote in a 78-page opinion filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. “Even a small undercount of a subset of the hard to count population would result in the loss of federal funding.”

Census Bureau data also determines congressional representation.

The opinion cites statements and emails from census officials questioning the amended deadline given the COVID-19 pandemic and an active wildfire and hurricane season.

Associate Census Director Albert Fontenot said on Sept. 17 that he “did not know whether Mother Nature would allow us to meet the September 30 date.”

Doreen N. McPaul, Navajo Nation attorney general, said Thursday’s ruling was promising.

“The Judge’s ruling in favor of Plaintiffs’ motion is a significant step forward in the fight for an accurate census to ensure hard-to-count populations, including our Navajo people, are fairly accounted for and provided the resources and representation to which they are entitled under the U.S. Constitution,” McPaul said in a statement issued before the notice of appeal.

The reservation had a 20.5% self-response rate to the census as of Friday. The national self-response rate was 66.3%.

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

But on Aug. 3, the bureau moved up the deadline to Sept. 30.

Under Koh’s ruling, the census data collection deadline would remain Oct. 31.

“As the first people of this country, we have every right to be counted in the 2020 Census,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. “The coronavirus pandemic has set all of us back and created many challenges to get people counted, especially for rural areas such as the Navajo Nation.”

The reservation’s limited internet and phone access make census operations difficult.

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