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The Race To 2020: Inside The Fight To Make Sure Colonia Residents Are Heard

After the 2010 census, more than 250,000 people who live in colonias lost access to the $400 million dollars that should have been allotted to them

How many people are in the United States? The 2020 census might be able to tell you — unless it’s improperly conducted, in which case entire communities could miss out on millions of dollars in resources over the next ten years, and might be rendered all the more invisible to the people elected to represent them.

Knowing the population of states and counties plays a major role in the quality of life in communities, including how public funds are spent, from roads and schools to hospitals and emergency services, and even the number of seats each state gets in Congress. But how the census bureau gathers that information next year has been widely contested, especially given President Donald Trump’s threat to gather information on everyone's citizenship status, which goes against the census’s broad directives. The question was ultimately blocked in the courts.

The census is usually pretty accurate: According to independent research, the census’s estimation is likely within 0.01 percent of the actual total. But accuracy and fairness aren’t the same thing, and according to the Census’ own report, the people who run the risk of being rendered invisible are usually minorities. Non-Hispanic white people were overcounted by nearly 1 percent; Black people were undercounted by about 2 percent; and Hispanic people were undercounted by 1.5 percent. So it’s no wonder that the largely Latinx people who live in the small unincorporated townships that dot the U.S.-Mexico border are notoriously undercounted — a grave misstep that affects everything from the streets they live on to the number of polling places made available to them during each election.

In 2010, the Census Bureau counted 775,000 people in Hidalgo County, Texas. But county officials believed the actual population could have approached nearly 845,000 people — meaning up to 70,000 people were effectively overlooked for a decade, according to Texas Monthly. Many of those people live in colonias, a term that means “neighborhood” in Spanish, and refers to rural areas beyond the municipal boundaries of the nearest cities and towns.

Colonias aren’t just located in Hidalgo County: More than 250,000 people who live in colonias across the state weren’t counted in the last census, Texas Monthly reported. Because of that undercounting, residents lost access to the $400 million dollars that should have been allotted to them for basic public services like street lights, paved roads, and increased funding for schools, according to the Hidalgo County 2020 Census Initiative.

In part, this is due to the lack of access — from dirt roads making travel more difficult to not being able to find colonias on many maps, there are barriers from the outside world to count the people who live there. These are issues that the Cameron County Elections Department encounters as they try to keep up with the unique needs of colonia residents and would-be voters. And, since colonias are so far away from the city limits, representation matters deeply for the residents who live there, as they don’t have the same infrastructure and services that are available in cities.

“There’s no reason why [colonias] shouldn’t [get the same resources],” Abraham Diaz, who works for the community advocacy group LUPE (La Unión Del Pueblo Entero), told MTV News correspondent Yoonj Kim. “We pay the same amount of taxes.”

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This is one reason why voter turnout is so important — particularly in a state with races as close and contentious as Texas. It’s part of an elected official’s job to ensure their constituents are heard, a task that is all the more important if the census doesn’t do that work. But when colonia residents miss out on resources, that can include polling locations or information about measures and candidates — and not showing up to vote has just as much an impact on elections as voting does.During the 2018 midterm elections, 53 percent of registered voters in Texas showed up at the polls, meaning that 46.3 percent of the voting-eligible population made their voices heard; by contrast, voter turnout for the Democratic primary was at just 11 percent. That means there are still plenty of people who need to be reached before 2020, and given Texas does not allow for online registration, activists often need to bring the paperwork to the people.

Though pundits and politicians often paint the state as being reliably red, that might be changing: Republican Ted Cruz beat Democrat Beto O’rourke by a mere 2.9 percent in the 2018 election for Senate, and some politicians hope that including voters in underrepresented places like the colonias might shift the makeup of the state’s representative pool, and that Texas’s 38 electoral votes could go to a Democrat in the upcoming Presidential election. The last time that happened was 1976, when the state voted for Democrat Jimmy Carter over Republican Gerald Ford.

“South Texas is going to be key in turning Texas blue,” Jessica Cisneros, a lawyer and candidate running for Congress in Texas’s 28th district, told Kim. “We're going to see an increase in voter turnout. It's not going to be eleven percent this time, because there's a big number of Latinx populations who are going to be able to vote for the first time.”

Whether or not Texas votes for Republican or Democratic representatives, voting is increasingly important for people who live in colonias. To create fundamental change in their communities, they need to be seen and heard. Both the  census and the voting booth can help make that happen — and the race is on to empower those people next year.