Dolores Huerta, a civil rights and labor activist, speaks to a crowd during the” 2020 Census Talk” on Wednesday in Longmont. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

Civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta stressed the importance of an accurate count Wednesday during a Longmont event meant to help local nonprofits prepare for the upcoming 2020 census.

The event was hosted by the nonprofit Complete Count Committee of Boulder County and the Longmont Community Foundation at the Xilinx Community Room in Longmont. She — along with a representative from the U.S. Census Bureau — spoke about how the census affects both the distribution of federal dollars and the apportionment of political power. The potential challenges in counting those in the Latino community were also discussed.

Under-counting Latino residents which, according to a 2019 estimate from the the U.S. Census Bureau, make up over a fifth of Colorado’s population, has serious consequences for the state, according to Huerta. A new congressional district, representing 700,000 people, could be given to Colorado based on the results of the census.

Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers union along with labor rights activist Cesar Chavez, and helped organize and lead the fiver-year-long Delano grape strike that began in 1965. She has also been an advocate for Latinos in America for decades.

“This is the most important issue facing our Latino community,” Huerta said before Wednesday’s event.

Nonprofit grants, SNAP, Section 8 housing and other programs dependent on federal dollars are also affected by the census. More than $675 billion per year in federal funds is given out based on the count.

“It goes to health care, it goes to our hospitals, it goes to community centers, it goes to our parks, it goes to our streets … that’s what we really have to put in people’s heads: you are the one that is going to bring that money in,” she said during her keynote speech.

This census presents new challenges, according to Huerta, and recent efforts by the Trump administration to put a citizenship question on the census could make it harder to persuade undocumented people, refugees and others to participate.

Though the effort was shot down in the courts over the summer — the Dolores Huerta Foundation, founded by Huerta in 2002, was one of the organizations that sued to stop the addition of the question — hesitancy about filling out census questionnaires could still linger.

“We’ve got to cut through that fear — and this is for the whole community, because if the undocumented people don’t get counted, everybody loses,” she said.

Representatives from nonprofits and other organizations in attendance were there to gain tools and information to deal with these fears. Huerta stressed the citizenship question was not going to be on the census questionnaire, and all answers would be confidential.

“They can’t give that information to ICE, they can’t give that information to anybody,” she said, “whether you’re undocumented or not.”

Lily Griego, a partnership coordinator with the U.S. Census Bureau who also spoke Wednesday, also noted that divulging the information of census respondents carries with it a hefty fine and the possibility of a prison sentence for bureau staff.

“If I break your trust, then I owe $250,000 minimum and I could go to prison for five years,” she said, adding employees of the U.S. Census Bureau take a lifetime oath to keep information secret.

Another issue the U.S. Census Bureau is facing is extremely low unemployment, especially in Colorado. According to Griego, the agency is finding it much more difficult this go-around to find people to knock on doors, what the U.S. Census Bureau refers to as an enumerator, from April through July, an essential practice for accurately completing a count.

“So the partnership team was hired much earlier than what you hear now for census takers and enumerators, and even that demonstrated the challenges in hiring right now, because everybody is fully employed, but these are temporary jobs,” she said, adding the agency is taking applications right now for enumerators.

The U.S. Census Bureau, she said, recently increased the pay for the position in much of the country, though, and in Boulder County it pays $20 per hour plus reimbursement for mileage. The pay is based on a cost-of-living assessment for each area.

Huerta also urged those in attendance to get out and knock on doors, pass out flyers and talk to others about completing the census. Canvassing, an activity that began her career in activism, is important to creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable, and even obligated, to participate in the census, she said.

“My organization, we’ve been going door-to-door for the last couple of months,” she said, adding people should reach others where they are — at the store, at the gym or elsewhere.

“Saturate the community with the messages, so that if somebody doesn’t … participate, they’ll feel like they got left out.”

Huerta, who was standing next to Robert F. Kennedy the night he was shot in the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, quoted the late senator in her speech Wednesday, as well, to underscore the necessity for each person to participate.

“We have responsibilities and obligations to our fellow citizens,” she said.

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