Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
Indian Country Today

Two tribes joined cities, counties and nonprofit organizations in a lawsuit against the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Commerce for shortening the 2020 Census deadline.

The Navajo Nation and Gila River Indian Community in Arizona announced Sept. 2 that they want the bureau to continue its operations until Oct. 31, the date set in April as part of the bureau’s COVID-19 plan. On Aug. 3 the bureau moved the deadline to Sept. 30, called the “Rush Plan,” to stop data collection to ensure a Dec. 31 delivery as required by law.

The bureau also asked Congress in April to extend the deadline for turning in apportionment data used for drawing congressional districts from Dec. 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021. The request passed the Democratic-controlled House as part of coronavirus-relief legislation but it hasn’t gone anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Gila River “feels strongly that extended deadlines are needed to ensure an accurate count not only for the Gila River Indian Community, but for Indian Country as a whole,” the community said in a statement

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said, “Unfortunately, the federal government has undermined the time, planning, and resources that the Navajo Nation had dedicated to the Census count by shortening the time period by an entire month and now we are seeking a resolution through the courts.”

The tribe proclaimed September 2020 as “Navajo Nation Census Month” to encourage the Navajo people to participate in the 2020 Census. As of August 31st, 18.4 percent of households on the Navajo Nation have self-responded on the phone, online or by paper compared to 65.1 percent nationally. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez at the Washington office. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the National Urban League, the League of Women Voters, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Harris County in Texas, King County in Washington state, the city of Los Angeles, the city of Salinas in California, city of San Jose in California, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the city of Chicago.

The defendants listed are Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross, Jr, the Department of Commerce, director of the census bureau Steven Dillingham, and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham at the 2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Both tribes emphasized that in-person enumeration, where census takers go door-to-door to ask 10 questions, is the “most effective method of completing census data,” particularly in rural areas. The bureau is in this phase now, the non-response follow up.

Getting a complete count has also been a challenge for tribes as many of them with reservations have closed its borders to non-residents.

The Navajo Nation implemented several 52-hour weekend lockdowns and weekday nightly curfews for its residents during the pandemic due to the rise in cases. The past few weekend lockdowns have been reduced to 32 hours. As of Sept. 2, the tribe has had 9,847 positive cases and lost 504 individuals to COVID-19.

Gila River is still under a shelter-in-place executive order and said an extended timeline is “necessary to allow time for the count to continue while maintaining the necessary safety measures needed during the pandemic.”

(Previous story: Pandemic shows tribes the census is an 'absolute necessity’)

Crow Creek Chairman Peter Lengkeek, who was sworn in May 5, said pushing up the census deadline “feels like an attack.”

The North Dakota tribe isn’t involved in the litigation but closed its borders like the Navajo Nation to control the spread of COVID-19. The Crow Creek Tribe has had a total of 165 positive cases and lost seven people since the start of the pandemic.

The chairman said the tribe allowed the bureau to drop off paper forms at approximately 1,500 homes on the Crow Creek Reservation before closing the reservation to outsiders. Out of 1,500 paper forms, only one household responded. 

The Census Bureau requires that census takers wear a mask while conducting their work. They will follow CDC and local public health guidelines when they visit. (Photo by the U.S. Census Bureau)

This low response and no active COVID-19 cases on the reservation in the past two weeks prompted the tribe to open its borders to census takers for one week, Aug. 28 to Sept. 4, so census takers can knock on doors. From what the bureau told Lengkeek, three Crow Creek citizens who work for the bureau will be visiting approximately 1,500 houses in the one week.

“I had requested that you know we really pushed to hire our own and, you know, and people that are known in the community,” Lengkeek said. On Sept. 1, the bureau told the chairman they are “doing better than expected and ahead of schedule.” As of Sept. 2, the Crow Creek Reservation had 25.8 percent of its households self-responded.

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau counts every person in the United States. It’s required by the Constitution. The data collected is used to distribute federal funding, to make sure there is equal representation at the local, state and federal levels, and more. 

IF YOU PARTICIPATE…

WHAT: 2020 Census
DEADLINE: September 30, 2020
HOW: By paper if it’s dropped off at your home; online at my2020census.gov; or by phone at 844-330-2020

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the deputy managing editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb or email her at jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com. Bennett-Begaye’s Grey’s Anatomy obsession started while attending the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

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