November 18, 2005

Border Round-Up

The Census from Hell?

Gathering vital statistics on the US-Mexico border is not an easy chore. Originally scheduled to conclude October 29, Mexico’s 5-year census is barely winding to a close. In different border cities, census-takers have confronted yapping street dogs, closed doors, suspicious residents, and difficult security guards at gated, upper-class subdivisions. A labor dispute over unpaid wages broke out in Ciudad Juarez between contracted census takers and the federal National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics (INEGI), while two census takers assigned to the Ciudad Juarez area spent hours one day lost near the Samalayuca sand dunes until they were rescued. Since contracts for many temporary census workers expired, INGEI supervisors were marshaled to conclude the count. Thousands of residences may have been omitted from the survey.

Fearing that information might find its way into the hands of kidnappers and criminals, the Canaco business association in Tijuana, Baja California, initially told its members not to answer census-gatherers’ questions. “Now is not the time to give out information,” declared Jaime Valdovino Machado, the president of Canaco’s Tijuana branch.

“We aren’t soliciting information about stock-holders, cell phones or capital in the census, nothing of that sort,” responded Sergio Rolando Gonzalez Arreola, the state coordinator for INGEI in Baja California. “We’re only asking basic information about housing and some personal data like age, sex and educational level.”

Questions arose about thousands of uncounted homes in Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, where residences were either classified as unoccupied or homeowners did not simply open their doors to INGEI personnel. In Ciudad Juarez and other places, census workers faced the possibility of encountering a “picadero,” or an illegal narcotics distribution house. Stories circulated about INEGI workers putting census seals on houses where the residents weren’t surveyed, while other reports surfaced of census takers mistakenly counting unoccupied residences as occupied. 

Despite the problems, Juan Pablo Olivares Lopez, the regional INEGI chief in Ciudad Juarez, expressed optimism that the incomplete count would be less than the 3 or 4 percent recommended by the United Nations. Indeed, Olivares’ office was shooting for a 99.5 percent target count.

A few critics took INEGI to task for missing a valuable demographic opportunity by not including questions about migration to the United States in the 5-year census. Gilberto Calvillo Vives, the national director of INEGI, concurred with the criticism but said others were examining the migration phenomenon. “INEGI is not the only organization charged with that responsibility. It shares that with other institutions of the social sector,” Calvillo said without elaborating.

While census personnel were forced to weather human obstacles along the US-Mexico border, it was the weather itself which proved to be biggest hurdle along Mexico’s southern border and in nearby regions. Hurricanes Stan and Wilma, which destroyed homes, isolated communities and scattered people, were blamed for causing delays in completing the census on time.

Estimated to cost about $180 million dollars, the 2005 census is of vital interest to public planners, academic researchers, business investors and government officials. INEGI’s Calvillo said preliminary census results should be released by next January. According to the federal official, the complete census information is expected to be available no later than May 2006.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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