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A federal judge extended the census as COVID-19 ticked back up


A federal district judge yesterday ordered the Trump administration to continue the census count through October instead of ending it Wednesday.

It’s a win for the Navajo Nation, one of several plaintiffs that have sued in federal court to extend by a month the once-a-decade population count. The Nation continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic and has only counted about 21% of tribal members to date, well below its goal. 

Earlier this week, the Nation re-issued a public health order that imposes a nightly curfew and a weekend-long lockdown because of a resurgence in positive cases. The order ends Tuesday. Basically, without judicial intervention, the tribe would be severely hampered in undertaking door-to-door census outreach in the final days of the census count. 

“For the safety and health of all of our Navajo people, we must adhere to the advice and recommendations of our health care experts,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a press release earlier this week.  “Their expertise is what led to the decrease in the new cases over the last few months. It only takes a few new cases to create multiple clusters of positive COVID-19 cases.”

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh wrote in yesterday’s ruling, “Even a small undercount of a subset of the hard to count population would result in the loss of federal funding. These harms and others will last through 2030, if not later.”

New Mexico, in particular, lags behind other states’ response to the U.S. Census every 10 years because a substantial portion of its population is categorized as hard to count, including its 19 pueblos, two Apache tribes and the Navajo Nation. 

While some Pueblos in New Mexico have exceeded their goals for the 2020 census, most tribes are playing catch-up after locking down their communities for several months to fight the pandemic. Two of the hardest hit tribes, the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla Apache Nation, are well below their census count goals. 

The once-a-decade head count of the U.S. population helps determine how much federal funding flows to communities over the next decade, helping pay for housing, healthcare, roads, and more. 

Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul addressed those issues in a press release today.

“The Judge’s ruling in favor of Plaintiffs’ motion is a significant step forward in the fight for an accurate census to ensure hard-to-count populations, including our Navajo people, are fairly accounted for and provided the resources and representation to which they are entitled under the U.S. Constitution."

It also determines how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives, making it very political

Koh in yesterday’s order also re-established an April 2021 deadline for the Census Bureau to deliver the final population count to the president, rather than December 31, ensuring whoever wins the November presidential election receives the final numbers.

But Koh’s ruling might not be the final word. The Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Commerce said they likely would appeal her ruling if it went against them, the Washington Post reported

That means the next few days could be a legal roller coaster for those most affected by the census count.

Nez addressed that potential in the Navajo Nation press release today. "The coronavirus pandemic has set all of us back and created many challenges to get people counted, especially for rural areas such as the Navajo Nation. Although we do anticipate an appeal to be filed by the federal officials, we ask them to respect Judge Koh’s ruling to allow the census count to continue until the end of October without disruption."