US census faces challenges counting small, poor Latino towns

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GUADALUPE, Ariz. (AP) — The two white-washed, mission-style churches and old, wooden homes in this town of mostly Latinos and Native Americans seem misplaced near luxury apartments in Phoenix and a suburb surrounding it.

Founded by Yaqui Indian refugees from Mexico more than a century ago, Guadalupe is named for Mexico's patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and is fiercely proud of its history. The town known for sacred Easter rituals featuring deer-antlered dancers also is wary of outsiders as it prepares for the 2020 census.

Town leaders hope to ease any reluctance to join the once-a-decade count, which could decide if Guadalupe gets more federal money to feed a tiny $12 million budget already pressed to fill potholes and mend sewage lines.

"Every revenue stream is important to a community as small as this one,” Town Manager Jeff Kulaga said.

Across America, small, poor communities such as Guadalupe, each with its own unique ethnic makeup, pose formidable challenges for census workers. Language barriers, poverty and a population that's often more transient and distrustful of government can make them especially hard to count, an Associated Press analysis of nationwide data has found.

The census has already postponed sending workers to amid the coronavirus pandemic. As people are asked to keep their distance from one another, counting places like Guadalupe could grow even more difficult.

Nearly a third of Guadalupe's 6,500 residents are Native American, and about 70% of all races there identify as Hispanic. A third struggle with poverty in a community where the median annual household income is around $32,000 and the average owner-occupied home is worth less than $90,000. Just 60 percent of adults finished high school.

It's a similar story in Immokalee, Florida, where a recent wave of immigration by indigenous Guatemalans who speak Mayan languages has created new challenges in a rural tomato-growing region that Edward R. Murrow highlighted in his 1960 documentary about migrant farmworkers, “Harvest of Shame.”

The nearest hospital is more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) away in wealthy Naples. The farming town of 25,000 people is a “food desert,” forcing families to hitchhike to supermarkets closer to the southwest Florida coast. More than 43% are in poverty. A similar percentage did not finish ninth grade.

Such small, poor and largely Latino communities historically have been undercounted, the AP analysis shows, posing challenges for census workers in the count that aims to ensure federal dollars get to communities needing them most.

“It is an increasingly difficult and expensive job to count these hard-to-count groups,” said D'Vera Cohn, a senior writer specializing in the census for the Pew Research Center. “It may be because they distrust the government or are transients moving around or people who don't speak English.”

The Census Bureau is spending $500 million in advertising — $50 million for ads designed to soothe fears among some Latinos, including the incorrect belief they will be asked about citizenship.

“In 2010, we had a lot of money on the table that was just lost and didn't come to the community. It is so critically important,” Vincent Keeys, president of the NAACP in Florida's Collier County, recently told leaders of nonprofit and government agencies in Immokalee.

Language and cultural barriers can make communication difficult in Guadalupe, where most people speak Spanish in addition to English or older tribal members prefer communicating in the Pascua Yaqui language.

“If you look at the town, you can see it hasn't been served by the census in the past,” said community organizer Petra Falcon, who has worked in Guadalupe for decades. “There are high teen pregnancy and suicide rates and low wages.”

Tribal officials said they are preparing group presentations and hiring Pascua Yaqui translators to explain the process to older members — including the direct connection between being counted and getting the community things it needs. Art designed by tribal youth adorns T-shirts, encouraging members in English and Yaqui to be counted: “It's in your hands.”

“We did a lot of work around the 2010 census, and we feel people are a lot more comfortable this time,” said Letticia Baltazar, a research specialist for the tribe headquartered on its reservation southwest of Tucson.

The Pascua Yaqui have up to 20,000 members in the U.S., including several thousand in Guadalupe.

In Immokalee, the challenges lie in the language and educational limitations of the community where women carry their babies on their backs and men ride bicycles along rows of old mobile homes.

More than 72 percent of its residents are Latino, with large numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. The number of residents of Guatemalan origin tripled from 2009 to 2016 and is expected to keep rising, with more Central American families arriving in Florida over the past two years.

Overcrowded living conditions and fears over immigration status also may impact the tally in the community settled in the 19th century by Seminole Indians who first built thatched roof huts on swampy ground. More than 250 tribal members still live on a reservation, in townhouses.

“When you are looking at a community that lives in the shadows, you begin to misread the sense of need, whether it is a Walmart or a hospital or bike lanes,” said Juana Brown, charter schools director for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Immokalee.

Brown's organization partnered with the Census Bureau to educate migrant families. A social worker gathers parents for census workshops while schools add census information to the curriculum in hopes students can clear up their parents' doubts.

Although nonprofits assure people their information won't be shared with immigration authorities, some erroneously thought they would be asked for a Social Security number.

“Because we arrived here illegally, it seems like an easy way for the government to find us if we fill out the forms. But now I understand,” said Maria Juarez, who came from San Marcos, Guatemala, and picks tomatoes.

Near Phoenix, Pascua Yaqui member Jose Roman, 43, said he'll fill out his census form but thinks others in Guadalupe won't. The government didn't recognize the tribe until 1978 — nearly a century after their ancestors fled repression in Mexico for Arizona — and its recent history is marked by conflict.

Phoenix-area Sheriff Joe Arpaio blanketed Guadalupe in 2008 with two days of immigration raids that sparked racial profiling accusations when mostly Hispanics were stopped for traffic and other minor violations.

“Guadalupe has always had to struggle,” said Santino Bernasconi, deacon at Our Lady of Guadalupe church.

The church is the heart of the community for residents like Frank and Ester Cota, now in their 80s. That's where they married and baptized their children, and now they volunteer in the parish office.

Like Bernasconi, they said Guadalupe's battles with encroaching development and efforts to build a highway through town explain why some residents may hesitate to participate in the census.

“A lot of people, especially the Yaqui, aren't exactly trustful,” said Frank Cota, who is not a tribal member. “But they need to participate. It's for their benefit.”

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Gomez Licon reported from Immokalee, Florida. Data journalist Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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