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The census missed Blacks, Latinos, Natives, but added whites. Some AZ leaders want to sue to fix it

The 2020 U.S. census count missed Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans at a higher rate than their white counterparts, officials admit. Considering the overall count was off by less than a quarter of a percentage point, the difference in who was missed was stark.

First the undercount: Latinos were undercounted by 5%. Native Americans on reservations by 5.6% and overall, a little less than 1%. Blacks 3.3%. Whites who didn’t identify as Hispanic were overcounted by 1.6%. As were Asians.

Experts point to a tough census count taken during a global pandemic. And they say, overall, being off by 0.24 of a percentage point marks a clear win for accuracy. But it also makes the big misses even more stark.

Diana Elliott is a research fellow at the Urban Institute.

"It’s sort of a good news story from a national accuracy perspective but when you dig below the surface and think about fairness and equity, that’s really where we need to make progress, moving forward and thinking about 2030," she said.

Census Bureau Director Robert Santos said Thursday that COVID-19 made it difficult to get an accurate count.   

"We had families of all races and ethnicities. But especially among Latinos, who were really suffering during this period. They were out of work. There were housing issues of stability, there were hunger issues and I think that played a role in the ability to secure participation," he said.

But Santos said some decisions may have skewed the data. The Trump administration pushed for a citizenship question that ultimately was not included but may have scared off potential responders. 

As a result, Santos said, "I am personally not surprised to see the results we see today."

In Arizona, the undercount was experienced across the state. Census officials told the Associated Press they planned for 1,000 census takers on the Navajo Nation. And ended up with less than 300. While at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, nobody from the Havasupai Tribe self-reported.

Research fellow Elliott said undercounts of specific groups is a trend with the census that’s gone on 40 years.

"It hasn’t been addressed. They haven’t fixed this. So you’ve had a persistent undercount of the Black population, the Hispanic and Latino population, of American Indians and Alaskan Natives. You’ve had an undercount of young children aged 0 to 5," Elliott said. 

In Tucson, Mayor Regina Romero said she wasn’t surprised by that undercounting and said she will be recommending the city join a lawsuit against the United States to correct it.

"It could be billions of dollars not coming into Tucson and Arizona. Because the census is tied to the formula funding that the federal government uses to fund education, to fund healthcare, to fund housing. Infrastructure, roads. This is very detrimental," she said.

Nogales Mayor Art Garino estimates census takers missed about 1,000 Latinos of the city’s estimated 20,000 residents. 

"There was a bunch of people here in Nogales when the census people were knocking on the doors, the homes were empty. Because those people stayed in Nogales, Sonora, because they were nonessential," he said.

Maybe related to that undercount, Nogales reported losing just about 1,000 people compared to 2010.

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Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.