‘Fighting for the census of our lives’: Coachella Valley workers race to boost engagement

A long line of cars snaked through the Palm Spring Convention Center parking lot on a sweltering Thursday evening as they waited, in a socially distant manner, to receive food from the FIND Food Bank — and information about the 2020 Census. 

As drivers pulled up to the front of the line and popped open their trunks, allowing food bank volunteers and California National Guard members to load them up with bags of oranges and frozen chicken breasts, food bank volunteer Anita Barreca leaned toward their window. “Have you heard about the census?” she asked.

“It’s really, really important that you complete it,” Barreca said.

She swapped between English and Spanish, depending on the drivers’ preferred language. She handed drivers a plastic bag containing a flier promoting participation as well as four surgical masks. Then she moved on to the next car.

The census, conducted every 10 years, endeavors to count every person in the United States. Results of the nine-question survey help determine the amount of money that flows in to fund local and state programs for schools, infrastructure, jobs and housing.

The clock to reach 100% participation is now ticking, following the U.S. Census Bureau’s last-minute decision to move up the survey deadline by a month, to Sept. 30.

More than half a dozen cities, counties and civil rights groups, including the cities of Los Angeles, San Jose and Salinas, sued the Trump Administration this month, saying there was no justification for its decision to end the survey early. They argue the new deadline will lead to undercounting of historically hard-to-reach populations, such as immigrants and young people.

The bureau also asked Congress to extend its deadline for turning in data used for drawing congressional districts, months before Trump issued a memorandum attempting to exclude undocumented immigrants from being part of that process. States, cities and civil rights groups challenged the memorandum as unconstitutional and an attempt to limit the power of Latinos and immigrants of color.

The Census Bureau’s partners, local governments and community organizations “have a lot of work to do … in the middle of a pandemic to get to 100%,” said Adán Chávez, deputy director of NALEO Education Fund’s National Census Program. “At the end of the day, we want everyone to be counted, no matter what.”

He acknowledged this year’s census has faced unprecedented challenges.

“It seems like attack after attack and challenge after challenge,” he said. “We’re fighting for the census of our lives right now.”

Since Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order in March, elected officials and civic leaders have had to come up with new ways to educate and inform people about the survey, while also observing social-distancing requirements and restrictions on in-person gatherings.

Riverside-based Centro del Inmigrante had planned to do outreach to nearby Latino residents at local swap meets, said Cesar Marroquin, the organization’s assistant director. But with many markets closed for months, the group switched gears and partnered with the desert’s food bank, which serves about 1,000 families — up to 4,000 people — at its biggest food distributions in Palm Springs, Indio and Mecca.

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Cities throughout the region have taken unique approaches to reach their residents, too. People may have seen banners on light posts throughout Coachella, or ads on bus stops and downtown pedestrian kiosks in Cathedral City. They may have heard about the 2020 Census on English- and Spanish-language radio and television.

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