About 30 toddlers had already arrived on July 13 for their day at the UNM Children’s Campus when Daniela Baca learned someone who visited the center regularly had tested positive for COVID-19.
Within an hour, the facility had emptied out and she had contacted the state health department. “We needed to stop accepting children,” she said. “We switched gears into making sure that we notified families what was going on.”
By mid-day, Baca had shifted her focus from caring for children to working with a pandemic rapid response team composed of workers from several state agencies. The team tested all staff and children that came into contact with the person infected by the virus, sanitized every inch inside and outside. They also tried to find out every person the infected person might have come into contact to prevent the spread at other locations.
New Mexico’s tribal communities suddenly find themselves in a rush to reorganize their plans to ensure a complete census count after federal authorities on Monday abruptly moved the deadline up by a month, from the end of October to September 30.
“We have pretty much lost a month of time to be able to gain that accurate count in our communities,” Ahtza Dawn Chavez, Executive Director of the Native American Voters Alliance Education Project, which heads up the New Mexico Native Census Coalition, told state leaders on Tuesday during a legislative hearing at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. “Our average self response rate is just over 30 percent, we have a lot of work to do going forward.”
American Indian leaders across the country have reacted strongly to the news. In a joint statement issued Wednesday, national Native organizations said they were “deeply alarmed and concerned with this unwarranted and irresponsible decision.” “Our tribal nations and tribal communities have been ravaged by COVID-19, and an extension of the Census enumeration period was a humane lifeline during an unprecedented global health catastrophe that provided critically needed additional time to tribal nations to ensure that all of everyone in their communities are counted,” the statement said.In a separate statement, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, who made history in 2018 as one of two indigenous women elected to Congress, said changing the deadline “flies in the face of Director (Steven) Dillinghan’s promise to me that he understood the importance of meeting our needs.”
The once-a-decade census count provides population numbers that determine to a large degree how much public money flows to tribes and other communities through federal, state and local funding programs. The new deadline threatens to increase chances for an undercount in tribal communities that currently have a response rate far below the national rate of 63%.
The presentation by Chavez to the New Mexico Indian Affairs Committee highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the census count. Census officials need access to tribal lands to complete the count. Their work includes door-to-door drops of census packets and in-person follow-up visits to homes that haven’t responded.
But census workers need permission of tribal authorities to enter tribal communities, and several tribes in New Mexico, which have been disproportionately hard-hit by the pandemic, are currently closed to non-members due to the public health emergency.
A coloring book developed to encourage people to return their census forms.A coloring book to encourage Native Americans to fill out the census / Courtesy of New Mexico Native Census Coalition
While 99 percent of homes on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation have received their “Update Leave” census packet–a specific form with an identification number that is geo-tagged to the person’s home–four tribes in the state have yet to allow census workers to begin dropping the packets door to door because of COVID-19 concerns.
Jicarilla Apache and the Pueblos of Zia, Pojoaque and Acoma have hired tribal members to drop packets at doors but haven’t started the training necessary to begin the work, Census officials said Tuesday during a media briefing.
The door-to-door packet delivery is designed to target rural and hard-to-reach homes. In August, census workers will begin doing in-person visits to homes that haven’t returned the packets. But how that will work in tribes that have yet to start the drops at the door remains unclear. The deadline to complete the census is October 31.
“They are in lockdown right now, that’s why we are not able to progress,” said Cathy Lacey, the U.S. Census Regional Director in Denver that oversees the operation in New Mexico tribes. “It could be that we’re never able to get on (these particular tribal lands) and do our Update Leave operation and we are in talks right now that we absolutely have to get on in order to do our non response follow up operation.”
Because tribal residents are encouraged to wait until they receive their packet, these communities have some of the lowest census returns in the nation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed long standing social and economic inequities that many say are at the root of a highly disproportionate number of Native Americans afflicted with the illness. Native Americans make up more than half of the state’s positive coronavirus cases — the majority are in San Juan and McKinley counties — but just 10.9% of its population, according to census data. As 2020 nears its halfway point, the pandemic threatens to worsen inequities in another way: the stunting of an ambitious and energetic rollout of the 2020 census count on tribal lands that will determine the amount of money going to the state’s tribes over the next decade.
This story was produced by New Mexico in Depth in collaboration with the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.
Already designated a hard-to-count population, the pandemic has contributed to a staggeringly low census response rate so far from tribes — a result census officials hope to turn around during the summer into the fall.Robust responses from the tribes, officials at the census emphasize, would ensure tribal communities receive their equitable share of federal resources to help pay for healthcare, housing, roads, and a range of other important services. In New Mexico, where nearly every school district receives education dollars through the Title I program geared to assist low-income students, 90% of Native American students attend Title 1 schools, according to the NM Native Census Coalition. Census responses also help determine the amount of money flowing to housing programs, such as the Section 8, Indian Community Development Block Grants and the Indian Housing Block Grant that supports new or reconstruction of homes on tribal lands.
Jasmine Yepa was happy with her daughters’ education at San Diego Riverside Charter School and Walatowa Headstart in Jemez Pueblo.Certified education assistants speak Towa, the Pueblo’s traditional language, with students while teachers build lesson plans in English. The education assistants also translate English lesson plans into Towa, giving children additional opportunities to hear and speak the language in a classroom setting.
Through her work at the Native American Budget and Policy Institute, Yepa understands the importance of her daughters learning their culture and language to dilute what she calls a “white washed system” that assimilates non-white students into American culture. “Celebrating multiculturalism and multilingualism should help foster appreciation of diversity and foster respect for people’s differences,” she said. “It’s something that all policy makers should understand. Language and culture plays a huge role in not only maintaining our cultural way of life but also our core values.”
New Mexico has enough from savings plus new money from Washington to help public schools weather looming budget shortages, says Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, a powerful lawmaker who helps to shape each year’s state budget. “It would be prudent to make some cuts but not deep cuts for the 21 budget,” Smith said Thursday morning of the public education portion of the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
On Wednesday during an online update on COVID-19, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed a desire to keep spending on public schools intact during a special legislative session she has called for June 18 to tackle a budget hole projected between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion for the state’s fiscal year that begins July 1.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico and the State’s effort to limit the impact of the disease on residents. The news conference is being held at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, Wednesday May 20, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
On Thursday her spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, reiterated his boss’ position: It’s “premature to talk about cuts. We’ll know when the special session gets closer.”
The significant hit to the state budget is due to a near shutdown of the economy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a collapse in consumer spending and global demand for oil and gas, both of which feed New Mexico’s revenue base through wages and taxes.
Smith based his opinion on multiple developments: the lion’s share of $120 million from the recently passed CARES Act in Washington that will go to the state’s 89 school districts and dozens of charter schools.
A toddler in his father’s lap struggled to keep his arm still while Amber Awelagte took his blood pressure.
“Stay still or it will get tighter,” she told the boy. Her calm demeanor seemed to soothe the boy as she finished up then sent him to get tested for COVID-19. In many ways it was a typical day for Awelagte, the lead medical assistant for the Homeless Outreach Program (HOP) at First Nations Community HealthSource, a health center with several clinics in Albuquerque serving the city’s large Native American population. Awelagte provides health services targeting urban Indigenous people in Albuquerque experiencing homelessness.
But unlike most days, on Wednesday First Nations offered testing to their unsheltered clients for the new coronavirus, even if they had no symptoms.
“It is kind of scary to think about it, I don’t want none of my patients getting sick and it’s sad. What is going on in the other Native communities is really bad,” she said. “I just want to try and help and slow it down over here.”
It’s no secret that New Mexico’s tribes are severely impacted by COVID-19.
Statewide, Native Americans account for 56% of those who’ve tested positive for the virus, while making up just 11% of the state population.