The last time enumerators came through her hometown to hand out census forms, Juana, a Pescadero resident of 16 years, participated.

This time, she’s not so sure.

Juana, who asked that her last name not be used because she is undocumented, said she is worried the government will ask about her citizenship status, and she is not alone.

County and state leaders praised last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that temporarily barred the Trump administration from including a question asking about citizenship on the 2020 U.S. Census. Critics say the question could lead to an undercount in immigrant communities. 

The federal government uses census data to determine funding levels and the number of Congressional seats for each state.

Still, some nonprofit leaders say a “culture of fear” already exists among immigrant communities in San Mateo County, leading people to distrust government in all forms.

“The ruling was great in that it was the way we wanted it to go, but a lot of the damage has already been done in our community,” said Petra Silton, policy and advocacy coordinator at Thrive Alliance, a consortium of San Mateo County nonprofits.

The Trump administration’s rhetoric about immigration and the spector of ICE raids have exacerbated concerns and complicated outreach in certain communities, according to Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente de la Sur in Pescadero.

“It’s going to be harder than usual to convince people that getting counted is a positive thing,” she said.

The county has begun a significant effort to ensure an accurate count next year, forming a census team that will work closely with community organizations and businesses to support residents. According to Silton, the census team is currently in the process of developing community action teams that will do outreach in each of the county’s jurisdictions. 

“We need people who are in the communities to be trusted messengers, to explain to people why the census is important, because it’s not obvious to the average person why they should be giving up information to the government,” Silton said. “Especially after we have literally spent the last two years telling them, ‘If the government comes knocking at your door, don’t open it.’”

The South Coast presents unique difficulties for enumerators. Mancera said many residents get their mail delivered to post office boxes, but the Census Bureau only delivers forms to physical addresses. Many households may be occupied by multiple families or lack a proficient English speaker. 

Mancera said her team is already canvassing the region to identify households that are the hardest to reach. She hopes to plan a census kickoff event to raise awareness and provide space for residents to fill out their forms at Puente.

She estimated that the 2010 census underrepresented the South Coast population by 60 percent.

Juana, a 39-year-old mother of three, said she wants to be counted.

“Well, it’s important to me because I feel like I’m part of the community and I have been living here for a long time,” she said. “And I feel like Pescadero is my home now.” 

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