Counting on the Census
Money aside, the politics matter, too. Based on the 2010 Census, Houston must draw two new city council districts to account for the city's population growth. "We need an accurate representation of where we live in order to do a fair redistricting plan that furthers representation in our neighborhoods," Wallace says. The implications aren't geographic alone. Just two of the council's fourteen members are Latino in a city where Latinos are estimated to be nearly 40 percent of the population.
Cynthia (not her real name) is being polite, but she's not terribly interested in talking, certainly not about the government's desire to know who she is and where she lives. She listens patiently as Evelyn DeLeon explains in Spanish why the ten-year Census is so important. But DeLeon might as well be telling her to drink poison.
"She feels like it's some sort of trap," DeLeon says, translating Cynthia's response. "She knows that she's seen it on TV," DeLeon explains, "and that this will benefit our children so that they can be counted and get help." But that sounds like BS to Cynthia. "Whatever they say it is, she thinks it's the opposite."
Cynthia is, however, thrilled to talk about her daughter in Honduras. The proud mom holds out a cellphone picture of the 18-year-old decked out in a graduation robe. She's off to college, and Cynthia, 47, is in Houston breaking her back for $230 a week because it's contributing to her daughter's future. She figures whatever kind of help this Census thing is offering, it's not likely to advance that singular goal. So it's not worth the risk of getting deported.
Her suspicions about whether and how she counts to the government would be confirmed later that night. Her closest friends, who, like her, are undocumented, were called to the airport to pick up their young son, a US citizen by birth. They had sent him home to Honduras with friends who are also citizens, but border cops wouldn't let the group back into Houston without the boy's legal guardians. When the parents arrived to claim him, they were arrested for visa violations. Separated from their son, they will be detained indefinitely and likely deported.
As the Census Bureau has flooded neighborhoods like Gulfton with its "be counted" message, the Obama administration has ratcheted up deportations to a record high. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported nearly 400,000 people in Obama's first year. And the president has hardened his tone on immigration; he moved from using the term "undocumented workers" on the campaign trail to "illegal immigrants" during the healthcare debate, when anti-immigrant rhetoric on the national stage soared.
"What's really different that wasn't there even ten years ago is this evolving anti-immigrant sentiment," says Commissioner Garcia. "We really had not felt it here as strongly as we see it on TV and around this country," she adds, "but in this past year, we're starting to see more raids."
The nightmarish idea of undocumented parents being separated from their children looms over any family's daily risk calculations. Cynthia, for instance, avoids food stamps, despite her challenges buying groceries for her youngest daughter, a grade schooler in Houston and a US citizen. "She stopped going because they were asking for way too much information, and she felt uncomfortable," DeLeon explains. That fear also means Cynthia's daughter won't be counted toward her neighborhood's elementary school or toward education grants based on Census numbers. She's among nine out of ten Houston public school students who are either Latino or black.
Garcia says this is the sort of thing that makes the anti-immigrant furor so counterproductive. It's clear that new immigrants infuse a city with the entrepreneurial ethos Neighborhood Centers' Blanchard gushes about. But it's also true they are often starting from scratch in an exploitative labor market. Nearly a quarter of both Latinos and blacks lived in poverty in 2008. A Southern Education Foundation study noted earlier this year that the South's public schools are now majority-minority; three years ago the region became the first to have a majority of its students be so poor they qualify for free lunch. Those students are the future workforce.
"We're already here, and it's quite doubtful we're going to be going anywhere," Garcia lectures. "So what we need to do is work together on solving these challenges to ensure that there's not some sort of meltdown in ten years. We gotta get ready."
Rice's Institute for Urban Studies, which has been tracking opinions and demographics in Houston for three decades, has found an increasing number of people who disagree. Just 64 percent of people surveyed last year agreed that kids of undocumented parents should be able to go to public schools, down from 71 percent three years ago. Similarly, half of those surveyed last year wanted to deny "health and welfare services" to undocumented residents. On a question measuring opinions about a range of populations—from whites to Muslims to gays and lesbians—"undocumented immigrants" scored the worst.