September 8, 2020; Washington Post (Associated Press)
The US Constitution requires a census of this country’s population every 10 years so the principle of democratic representation can be observed. But this year, as the country struggles through the pandemic, the Trump administration has contracted the time for face-to-face data collection by an entire month, thus virtually ensuring the count will be off to what James Tucker, vice chair of the US Census National Advisory Committee, calls a potentially historic degree.
What’s more, the miscount will be proportionately larger in communities of color, especially American Indians on lands governed by tribal nations. And, as mentioned, this inaccuracy affect their region’s representation in Congress and access to federal resources.
As NPQ has covered, the census count deadline was moved from October 31st to September 30th despite the fact that the pandemic has interrupted normal community functions and made it difficult to do the face-to-face collections necessary to do a full count. In Montana, only 24 percent of residents living on the lands governed by seven tribal nations had been counted by the first of this month, as compared to a national count average of 85 percent. Issues of trust, connectivity, language, and distance all play into the problem. The Census Bureau believes that, historically, American Indians face an undercount twice as large as any other group.
Furthermore, a number of tribes closed their borders to try to control the spread of the virus. The Census Bureau is working hard to make contact with residents in ways that observe safety guidelines. For instance, on the land governed by the Crow Nation in Montana, which is twice the size of Delaware, census workers are establishing more accessible ways to take the count, including drive-through stations. The Navajo Nation has declared September as “Navajo Nation Census Month,” as only 18.4 percent of households have self-responded.
Indian Country Today describes the context in which the count timeline has been accelerated, quoting Crow Creek Chairman Peter Lengkeek as saying that in that context pushing up the census deadline “feels like an attack”:
The Navajo Nation implemented several 52-hour weekend lockdowns and weekday nightly curfews for its residents during the pandemic due to the rise in cases. The past few weekend lockdowns have been reduced to 32 hours. As of September 2, the tribe has had 9,847 positive cases and lost 504 individuals to COVID-19.
Gila River is still under a shelter-in-place executive order and said an extended timeline is “necessary to allow time for the count to continue while maintaining the necessary safety measures needed during the pandemic.”’
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The stakes are high. “Missing a single family of four in Indian Country translates to $14,000 a year in lost federal funding,” Tucker says.
Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) of the US Committee on Indian Affairs spearheaded a protest of the earlier deadline in a letter to the Census Bureau and Commerce Department in mid-August pointing out that the pandemic had taken a serious toll on Tribal nations which have experienced some of the highest mortality rates in the country and this has seriously complicated the gathering of data:
American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian leaders have spent months coordinating with the Census Bureau to prepare their communities for the 2020 count and to meet the Bureau’s October 31st deadline. Their herculean efforts to get out the count even during a pandemic should not be discounted or cut short. Failure to get a complete and accurate count of these community populations will have long term and devastating impacts—from redistricting data, to federal funding, to congressional representation. A fair and accurate census is critical to Native communities’ continued and future prosperity.
We strongly urge you to honor the previously announced 2020 census completion date of October 31, 2020 and to continue operations under the modified timeline as detailed in the Bureau’s April 13th announcement. We look forward to working with you to uphold the federal government’s constitutional obligation to ensure a fair and accurate count for Indian Country and all Native populations within the United States.
Other signatories include Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT), Gary Peters (D-MI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tina Smith (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Angus King (I-ME), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL.), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV).
A number of court suits aimed at extending the count period have been filed across the country including one, reports Indian Country Today, filed by the Navajo Nation and Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, joined by the National Urban League, the League of Women Voters, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Harris County in Texas, King County in Washington state, the city of Los Angeles, the city of Salinas in California, the city of San Jose in California, the NAACP, and the city of Chicago.
The 68-page complaint is well worth reading. In its first clause, the plaintiffs allege that the rushed count amounts to an “unconstitutional and illegal” attack on enumeration that is “forcing the Census Bureau to compress eight and a half months of vital data-collection and data-processing into four and a half months, against the judgment of the Bureau’s staff and in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic.” The plaintiffs further allege that the rush count aims to suppress “the political power of communities of color by excluding undocumented people from the final apportionment count.”—Ruth McCambridge