Civil rights groups fear budget constraints at the U.S. Census Bureau could lead to a less accurate count of the nation’s growing Latino population and other communities of color in the 2020 census.

A panel discussion on the census was held Thursday at the League of United Latin American Citizens’ annual convention at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

One of the speakers was Terry Ao Minnis, census and voting programs director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. She noted that the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget calls for a $27 million total increase for the U.S. Census Bureau – an increase that’s much smaller than in previous fiscal years.

“What we really need for Congress to do is spend significantly more money than what the president has requested,” Minnis said.

The Census Bureau is entering a critical phase of its 2020 census operations. This includes a finalization of testing and a survey redesign, formation of a communications and language program, and the launch of field operations. Regional census offices, such as one in Dallas, open in April 2018.

The U.S. government uses the census – its largest non-military operation – to determine the number of Congressional seats each district receives. The tally is also used to calculate how millions of dollars in federal funds are distributed nationwide. In addition to conducting a census every decade, the census bureau regularly provides more immediate information, such as employment data, consumer index numbers, and housing starts.

Congress had doubts about the census bureau’s 2020 preparations as early as last fall, and budget concerns caused the bureau to call off field tests that were to take place this spring in Puerto Rico, North and South Dakota, and Washington state. The tests also would have allowed the bureau to see how well its new custom mobile app, Compass, performs among groups of people speaking different languages.

“These are missed opportunities that can’t be gotten back,” Minnis said.

The 2020 census would mark the bureau’s most comprehensive usage of technology – via internet or smartphone – to receive survey responses. People would still be able to answer questions on paper or give answers in person to census workers going door to door. Previously, respondents could only get census assistance via phone or the web.

Concerns over a lack of adequate funding and preparations are leading some observers to fear there will be undercounts, especially among communities of color.

The panelists also acknowledged that a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment across the country may cause many people to be reluctant to take part in the census.

Erin Hustings, legislative counsel for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund?, voiced frustration over how small things can make people reluctant to answer census surveys.

For example, many people still think the census takes place only one day, April 1, rather than over the course of months. She added that most Americans don’t understand the far-reaching impact a census can have on distribution of political power.

Following the 2010 census, Texas gained four Congressional seats, and was among eight states to add Congressional districts. But 10 states, including Ohio and New York, lost seats.

Hustings said the importance of a properly conducted census cannot be overstated, particularly as a means to track the expanding and evolving Latino population. The highest rates of growth among Latino communities between 2000 and 2014 were recorded in South Dakota, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and Kentucky.

“That’s why it’s important to get the census right and accurate,” Hustings said.

Even though the 2010 census was hailed as the most accurate count yet, Latino, Native American, and black communities were still undercounted, Hustings said. The census missed about 400,000 Latino children, and about 776,000 Latinos overall, she said.

The 2010 count dropped further in categorized groups of respondents, such as renters, newly arrived immigrants, and low-income citizens.

Hustings said in the case of undercounted children, there were many instances where the parents simply did not realize their children should be counted. In other instances, parents consciously decided not to count their children.

Counting Latinos in 2020 could be further complicated by the redesign of questions about Hispanic origin and race, Hustings said.

“There’s a growing disconnect between how the Census Bureau asks about ethnicity and how people define themselves,” Hustings said. She added that many respondents in the 2010 census did not answer the question about Hispanic origin or race or replied “some other race.”

Vicki McIntire, the Census Bureau’s assistant regional director, said in spite of these concerns, she is hopeful a diverse cast of individuals nationwide will help conduct the census and ensure as many people as possible are counted properly.

Community involvement and communication from organizations such as LULAC will be especially critical to educating the public prior to the 2020 census, McIntire said.

“We want people who look like your community knocking on doors in your community,” she said.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.