As census forms begin arriving in mailboxes this week, federal workers tasked with counting humans in the nation's second-most populous state face their usual Texas challenge: how to account for immigrants who'd rather not be noticed.
It's a problem with every decade's census in a state that shares a 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico, but it's not exclusively a border issue. In fact, U.S. Census Bureau officials also are targeting areas away from the border where large pockets of "hard to count" immigrants wind up after entering the country.
The Census Bureau considers Harris County and Dallas County the hardest to count in Texas. Harris ranks fourth nationally and Dallas 10th in the difficulty rankings that consider various factors, including how many surveys were returned in the 2000 census, language, education, mobility, poverty and employment.
Tarrant County ranks number 34 on that list, which can be seen toward the bottom of this page.
When it comes to immigrants, though, the biggest factor is fear.
"They fear the police, they fear deportation and they fear answering questions," said Teresa Sims, a volunteer at an Arlington church that's holding a forum March 20 explaining the census to immigrants.
The Census Bureau has launched a national campaign to better inform immigrants in response to complaints that Hispanics were largely undercounted in 2000. For the first time, millions of census forms have been printed in Spanish. And the bureau's trying to hire bilingual workers to get into isolated communities.
Officials say the key is to get trusted local people such as priests, teachers and immigration attorneys to tell people the census is important and safe. Immigration status is not one of the 10 questions on the form.
"The No. 1 challenge is educating individuals about the confidentiality of the census and how there's really not a sharing of information from government agency to government agency," said Jerome Garza, a Census Bureau area manager in charge of the border. "That's a very foreign concept to many immigrants coming to us."
Another problem is mobility. Luis Castillo, the head of a League of United Latin American Citizens chapter in Arlington, said it's difficult to track people who are willing to leave on short notice to get better jobs.
Starting this week, more than 120 million households will get the census forms in the mail. The results of the population count will determine who gets billions in federal aid for schools, roads, medical clinics and other needs. The census also will decide how congressional seats will be divvied up. Texas stands to gain three or four House seats.
Luis Figueroa, a legislative staff attorney for The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the two biggest challenges have been convincing people how important the census is and that it's safe.
It's also a challenge just getting that word out. Meetings are scheduled around the state, and all sorts of groups are trying to explain why it's important, in English and Spanish.
Troy Wynne, a city planner in the Dallas suburb of Irving, said efforts there have included sending fliers home with children, putting up posters at schools and showing up at open houses. About one-third of Irving's population is foreign-born, and about 25 percent are non-citizens, said Wynne, who's coordinating the city's efforts to reach hard-to-count people.
Despite the most focused efforts, though, immigrants are still wary.
Sims, who's retired and started an English literacy for immigrants class at the Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Arlington, says that fear of government has actually been helpful in convincing people how important the census is.
"We need to let them know that if they don't fill out there census, someone will come to their door," she said.
<b>Census Bureau's hardest areas to count </b>
The U.S. Census Bureau classifies certain areas in the nation as hard to count, based on a statistical formula. Here are the 20 hardest-to-count counties in the nation, as well as the rankings of other Texas counties in the top 50:
1. Los Angeles County, Calif.
2. Cook County, Ill.
3. Kings County, N.Y.
4. Harris County, Texas
5. Bronx County, New York
6. Miami-Dade County, Fla.
7. Queens County, N.Y.
8. New York County, N.Y.
9. Maricopa County, Ariz.
10. Dallas County, Texas
11. San Diego County, Calif.
12. Orange County, Calif.
13. Wayne County, Mich.
14. Philadelphia County, Pa.
15. San Bernandino County, Calif.
16. Hidalgo County, Texas
17. Fresno County, Calif.
18. Riverside County, Calif.
19. Essex County, N.J.
20. Bexar County, Texas
Other Texas counties:
29. El Paso