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 WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led a committee oversight hearing entitled “Making Indian Country Count: Native Americans and the 2020 Census” to discuss the barriers to accurate census counts in Indian Country.

 “Valid and accurate census data is the bedrock of fair, proportionate representation in our democracy,” Udall said. “An inaccurate census risks underrepresentation for Tribal communities. And an undercount can lead to skewed state, local, and federal voting districts that diminish the voices of those communities.” 

“The results of the census have a ripple effect beyond just the government. Businesses look at these population estimates when looking to expand. And they influence how communities, including Tribes, plan for schools and hospitals,” Udall continued. “That makes it all the more important that we get this census right. Unfortunately, the bureau certainly hasn’t in the past.”

In 2010, the census undercounted the American Indian and Alaska Native population by an estimated 5 percent. Today, Tribal witnesses testified on the far-reaching impacts that inaccurate counts have had on Tribal communities – including underrepresentation in voting districts and equitable allocation of federal funding.

“I am concerned that funding shortfalls, leading to the cancellation of important field tests, are only further straining the bureau’s ability to carry out this constitutionally mandated duty,” Udall said. “This has very real consequences for Indian Country. Census data determines how the government will distribute more than $600 billion this year and more than $6 trillion over the next 10 years, by some estimates.”

Udall continued, “for every person the census misses, thousands of dollars are lost. In a budget environment where Indian Country is already underfunded, we can’t afford to let these dollars leave Indian Country.”

In addition to the oversight hearing, Udall led a committee business meeting to consider two bills, including the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization and Amendments Act, S. 1953. Udall offered two amendments to S.1953. Udall’s first amendment, which was adopted by the committee, improves certain reporting requirements in the Tribal Law and Order Act to enhance Tribal input, creates safeguards for Native human trafficking victim’s privacy, and examines educational opportunities available to incarcerated Native youth.

Udall’s second amendment to S. 1953 addresses Tribal access to federal criminal databases to ensure Tribes can access needed criminal background check information for foster care placements and employment decisions. According to a report from the Interior Department’s inspector general, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) is failing to ensure that background checks are being carried out for BIE school employees. Udall withdrew the amendment after securing an agreement from Chairman John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to continue working with him on addressing this issue. He further stated that he hopes to keep refining the language with new feedback from the Department of Justice and Tribal stakeholders.

“I strongly support our concentration on these public safety issues,” Udall said. “And in light of the president’s budget that was released this week, which once again shows this administration’s disregard for the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations to provide basic services to Native Americans, I hope we will all recommit to addressing the critical need for public safety resources in Native communities.”

The full text of Udall’s opening remarks at the oversight hearing can be found below.

Thank you, Chairman Hoeven, for holding this important oversight hearing on the census. With 2020 around the corner and preparations already well underway, it is timely. And thank you to our witnesses today for coming out to shed light on a topic that will impact Indian Country for years to come.

Administering the census is a task so fundamental to how our government operates that our nation’s founders included it in the Constitution.

With far-reaching consequences, our founders’ decision was for good reason.

Valid and accurate census data is the bedrock of fair, proportionate representation in our democracy.

The census’ detailed demographic data is used to implement the Voting Rights Act -- an inaccurate census risks underrepresentation for Tribal communities. And an undercount can lead to skewed state, local, and federal voting districts that diminish the voices of those communities.

The census has a big impact on Indian Country when it comes to voting, one of our most essential civil rights.

Basic obligations like language assistance at the polls and voter registration in a Tribal community’s own language can be influenced by an undercount. And federal agencies rely on census and American Community Service data when enforcing civil rights laws.

The results of the census has a ripple effect beyond just the government. Businesses look at these population estimates when looking to expand. And they influence how communities, including Tribes, plan for schools and hospitals.

That makes it all the more important that we get this census right.

Unfortunately, the bureau certainly hasn’t in the past. In 1990, the census under-counted the American Indian population by 12 percent, then under-counted the population again in 2010 by 5 percent.

I am concerned that funding shortfalls, leading to the cancellation of important field tests, are only further straining the bureau’s ability to carry out this constitutionally mandated duty.

This has very real consequences for Indian Country. Census data determines how the government will distribute more than $600 billion this year and more than $6 trillion over the next ten years, by some estimates.

Putting those numbers in context – in New Mexico, the federal government spends about $3,000 per person on everything from how the government distributes Medicaid dollars and SNAP funds, to Tribal transportation and housing.

That means for every person the census misses, thousands of dollars are lost. In a budget environment where Indian Country is already under-funded, we can’t afford to let these dollars leave Indian Country.

I’m glad, Mr. Chairman, that we’re holding this hearing to make sure the bureau gets the census right this time around.

With that, I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about the outlook for this year, with an eye towards 2020.

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