Native American Orgs Demand More Time For Census

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (August 6, 2020, 8:03 PM EDT) -- Three prominent organizations representing the rights of Native Americans issued a joint statement Wednesday condemning the U.S. Census Bureau's decision to suspend field operations on Sept. 30, rather than on Oct. 31 as previously planned.

The National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund and the National Urban Indian Family Coalition urged the federal government to extend the deadline for on-the-ground data collection in order to ensure a more accurate 2020 census count of Native Americans living on and off reservations, whose barriers to an accurate count have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau moved its deadline from July to October in a notice citing the pandemic earlier this year, before pushing the date up to Sept. 30 this week. 

"[We] are deeply alarmed and concerned with this unwarranted and irresponsible decision," the groups wrote Wednesday, citing "severely low response rates in historically undercounted areas."

With few exceptions, tribal regions across the country are currently showing a self-response rate well below the national average of 63%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website.

The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the country by geographic area, as of Thursday has a self-response rate of approximately 14.7%, according to the online figures.

Urban Native American populations are also facing serious hurdles, according to Rio Fernandes, a spokesperson for the National Urban Indian Family Coalition. 

"A little more than 70% of all Indians live in urban areas. The problem is that they are disproportionately represented in pretty much every hard-to-count tract," Fernandes told Law360. Many experience "poverty, lower education levels, and live in multifamily homes. Homelessness is a huge one," he said. 

Fernandes and his team are working on census outreach with 24 organizations across 18 states, and he said that the coronavirus has thrown a wrench in these efforts. "The pandemic is still very much a reality ... and a lot of us are still taking a lot of precautions," he said. "We've had to readapt everything we're planning." 

An accurate population count is needed for tribes to receive adequate social services and representation in Congress, the Native American groups noted Wednesday.

"Our tribal nations and tribal communities have been ravaged by COVID-19, and an extension of the census enumeration period was a humane lifeline," they added, noting that an extension should be included in Congress' next coronavirus relief package.

In a statement to Law360, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he believes the Trump administration is attempting to skew the count.

"When our Native communities are undercounted, hospitals, schools, roads, infrastructure, water systems and more are underfunded," Udall said. 

Reached for comment Thursday, the U.S. Census Bureau shared a press release the agency issued Monday. In that release, the bureau justified the Sept. 30 cutoff by saying it will "permit the commencement of data processing."

"Under this plan, the Census Bureau intends to meet a similar level of household responses as collected in prior censuses, including outreach to hard-to-count communities," the bureau added.

James T. Meggesto, head of Holland & Knight LLP's Native American law team and member of the Onondaga Nation, told Law360 on Thursday that the federal government needs an accurate count from tribes in order to live up to its trust responsibilities.

Meggesto noted that distribution of coronavirus relief funds has been particularly frustrating, as the federal government has relied on an Indian Housing Block Grant metric that several tribes say undercounts them.

"There's a big digital divide in a lot of places in Indian Country and having field operations is important," Meggesto said. "Having boots on the ground is critical to getting an accurate count."

For Fernandes, the fluctuating timeline from the Census Bureau has complicated organizations' efforts to build trust in the federal government. 

"In huge swaths of the Indian population there are very profound levels of mistrust of the federal government," he said. "So when the main message is that this [census count] allocates funds and is this super important data set that decides where trillions of dollars are being spent for the next ten years, it's easy to say, 'They were never going to care for us.'"

--Editing by Daniel King.

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