TOPEKA, Kansas — When Gov. Laura Kelly signed a proclamation recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month in Kansas this week, she hailed the culture and diversity that Latinos bring to the state. She also gave a serious warning.
If the state’s 350,000 Latinos don’t take part in the 2020 census, she said, Kansas could lose federal money and, potentially, representation in Congress.
“We cannot overstate it,” the Democratic governor told a crowd at the Statehouse. “The 2020 census is critical.”
The census approaches as the national immigration debate is wrapped in intense rhetoric, calls for building a wall on the southern border and an uptick in federal enforcement actions.
“I’m concerned that they will be afraid to be counted,” Kelly said. “I just want to reassure them they have nothing to worry about. Their voice counts.”
That’s why it’s a top priority for the executive director of the administration’s Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission, Audé Negrete.
She said there are multiple challenges: Census documents are printed in Spanish, but some Spanish-speakers may be nervous about talking to a census worker who doesn’t speak the language. She also is combating misconceptions that census data could be used by immigration enforcement.
“If they have a mixed-status family, they might not want the one person to be in danger if they were to answer the census,” she said.
Census data is confidential, and Negrete’s group has been working to let people know that there will not be a citizenship question on the form because the U.S. Supreme Court blocked it.
Why it matters
The federal government uses census data to determine how to distribute funding for everything from school lunches to transportation. Private developers analyze it when planning housing projects and new businesses. So, an inaccurate count could mean the state misses out on federal money and development.
“If only 20 people answer the census but 100 live in a town, we’re going to have resources for 20 but have to serve 100,” Negrete said.
Plus, state lawmakers use census data to redraw legislative districts, which will happen in 2022, and the federal government doles out seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on the numbers.
Negrete’s group is holding listening sessions around Kansas to get a feel for which issues are on the minds of Latinos. In general, people aren’t asking about the census, and Negrete said she’s bringing up the topic to get ahead of that knowledge gap.
It’s not just state officials working to raise awareness and dispel concerns. The U.S. Census Bureau also has staff working in Kansas.
Carlos Urquilla-Diaz, a partnership specialist with the census, unfurled large banners and distributed printouts with census data ahead of Wednesday’s proclamation signing. He’s been traveling the state meeting with anyone who wants to know about the census.
“We bring information, we teach,” he said. “We go to different communities and we start with the highest elected official, in most cases, of that community.”
Kansas won’t have another shot to get an accurate count until 2030, and Negrete said it has long-term impacts.
“Elections are two years, four years, six years. The census is 10 years,” she said. “It affects everyone."
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda or email skoranda (at) ku (dot) edu.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.