According to the state tourism bureau, Sunland Park is one of the last towns of the Old West, tucked below the commanding peak of Mt. Cristo Rey, a slender finger of southern New Mexico between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico.

To the pride of city government, Sunland Park is one of the safest places in New Mexico, a fast-growing community of 16,500 and the largest border city in the state.

In the dry, bureaucratic language of the U.S. Census Bureau, Sunland Park is simply one of the hardest-to-count tracts in the entire country.

That characterization, however, is based on response rates from the 2010 census and may hardly still be applicable. That’s because in the last 10 years, so much has changed along the border that observers are girding themselves for what may prove to be a far more damaging undercount in the 2020 census. 

If that happens, it will mean the loss of millions of federal dollars to New Mexico, affecting everything from much-needed health programs to education and infrastructure.

The reasons are many. To begin with, the population near the southern border has grown significantly, due in part to a wave of migrants fleeing drug violence in Mexico and Central America.  At the same time, fear and mistrust of the federal government has reached a new level among immigrant and mixed-status households, made even more intense by the recent separation of children and families caught crossing the border illegally.

The planned introduction of a citizenship question is partly to blame. For the first time since 1950, the Census Bureau will ask all households about citizenship status. The question, which is currently facing a legal challenge from a coalition of cities and states, will presumably home in on whether a person is a U.S. citizen.

The federal government rejects the notion that information collected by the census could be shared with immigration authorities. It cites the fact that the Census Bureau is required by law to keep this data confidential.

But newly released information has shown that law has on occasion been flouted, first with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and more recently with the passing of specially tabulated data on Arab-Americans following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Convincing immigrant communities that their data is safe is a high hurdle to clear in the current climate — especially in towns like Sunland Park, where residents say they are often awakened by Border Patrol trucks shining high beams of light into their houses late at night. During the day, they say, they’re afraid to leave their homes and when they do, they avoid talking to anyone they don’t know.

‘You can’t trust anyone’

“We have certain amendments that protect us here in the United States,” Lulu Hernandez assures a recent gathering at the Sunland Park Public Library. The gathering is organized by the Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso, Texas, advocacy group that holds weekly meetings in communities along the border with Mexico.

“This one here, the 5th Amendment, gives us the right to remain silent,” says Hernandez, as she passes out fliers summarizing the Bill of Rights. “If law enforcement asks you if you have your papers, you don’t have to answer. They can’t arrest you for not answering.”

Most of the people here have already had run-ins with immigration officials; Hernandez, herself, has had immigration agents come knocking on her door, demanding documentation of citizenship. When the attendees are asked whether they intend to participate in the census, several heads shake ‘no.’

“You can’t trust anyone these days,” a woman says in Spanish.  

Growth creates an urgent need

An undercount is a problem for any municipality, but Sunland Park and other border communities would be hit especially hard. The town already relies on an allotment of federal funding that is disproportionately small for its population.

“It is important to get all those individuals counted, because we are one of the fastest growing areas in the state of New Mexico,” Mayor Javier Perea said. “We continue to add between 150-300 new homes every single year.”

The growth is expected to continue, given the development of nearby Santa Teresa Intermodal Park, with its 225 industrial-zoned acres adjacent to Doña Ana County International Airport and Union Pacific Railroad.

Yet Sunland Park’s infrastructure is unequipped to handle a growing population. Water lines are aging. Pumps and sewage systems, built 30 or 40 years ago, are at the end of their lives and need to be replaced. Streets are in need of maintenance and some neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks, meaning kids have to walk in the roads, often creating a safety hazard. 

A lack of local services, from hospitals to businesses, means people tend to leave the community for neighboring El Paso to shop and get health care — spending their tax dollars in Texas and creating a revenue loss for their hometowns in New Mexico.

Sunland Park will need to boost its budget with federal funds — funds dependent on census data — to overcome those challenges.

The challenge of colonias

But aside from the aversion many have to providing information to the federal government, Sunland Park and other nearby communities face an additional challenge to an accurate census count: many residents along the border live in colonias — unincorporated communities where poverty is especially pronounced and infrastructure is often minimal or nonexistent.  

Even identifying where a colonia begins and ends is a significant challenge for local governments, says Jay Armijo, executive director of the South Central Council of Governments, a regional planning body of elected public officials.

“One of the struggles we have as planners and developers is being able to define geographically what Chaparral, New Mexico, actually is, for instance,” he added, referring to a colonia in Doña Ana and Otero Counties. According to the 2010 census, its population was 14,631. “On any given day you’ll hear numbers thrown around that there are 15,000 people living in that area or that there could actually be as many as 30,000 living there.”

Armijo is currently heading an effort to identify the populations and geographic boundaries of the nearly 40 colonias in Doña Ana County. The effort, a project of the Census Bureau called the Participant Statistical Area Program, is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for jurisdictions with small, poorly-defined unincorporated communities to redraw their census area boundaries to better reflect the population’s location.

Local leaders hope the effort will lead to a better count. But even with a clear understanding of the colonias’ boundaries and characteristics, they acknowledge that they will need to work to build confidence in the community and assure undocumented residents that they are safe in letting themselves be counted.

Ed Williams, a Searchlight investigative reporter, covers child welfare, social justice and other issues. In 2022, he was selected for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network to produce stories about abuses...