By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A Texas civil rights group filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Antonio on Monday charging that the 2010 Census failed to count as many as one-tenth of the Hispanics living in the state.
The Mexican American Legislative Caucus asked a federal judge to order the Texas Legislature to draw political boundaries based on the assumption that there are more Hispanics living in the state than the Census shows.
Lawyer Jose Garza, who represents the caucus, said the lawsuit against Governor Rick Perry and other key state leaders is likely to become the basis of similar suits in other states demanding increased Latino representation in Congress, state legislatures, and on political boards and commissions.
Garza said Texas is not the only state where Hispanics are likely to have been significantly undercounted, in part because the U.S. Census Bureau has cut back on outreach efforts.
Jenna Arnold, a spokeswoman in Dallas for the U.S. Census Bureau, said that starting June 1, the Census will accept challenges from elected officials to their jurisdictions' 2010 Census count.
She said the Census plans to build on outreach efforts from 2010 and will use an evaluation of how accurate the count was to make the 2020 Census better.
"We appreciate the concern by some along the Texas border region with the 2010 Census population count," Arnold said in an e-mailed statement. "The Census Bureau was strongly committed to ensuring a complete count of the population."
The country's Hispanic population grew 46.3 percent in the last decade, and Hispanics accounted for more than half of the nation's total population growth in the 2010 Census, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Texas gained about 4.3 million residents in the decade, and Hispanics accounting for 65 percent of that growth.
"We are not asking for a new census -- we are asking the state to be sensitive to that undercount, and draw districts accordingly," Garza said at the federal court house in San Antonio after filing the lawsuit.
Figures from the 2010 Census are being used now by state legislatures across the country to redraw political boundaries.
The U.S. Voting Rights Act as well as Supreme Court decisions require that districts be drawn in a way that provides "minority opportunity districts," where minority members are likely to be elected, in proportion to the numbers of minorities counted in the census.
Garza said the legislative caucus has "voluminous" evidence indicating the U.S. Census Bureau failed to adequately enumerate Latino voters living both in urban areas and in rural 'colonias,' unincorporated settlements, mainly along the Rio Grande, which are populated chiefly by immigrants.
"We're being told by people on the ground that Census Bureau officials were getting calls 60 to 90 days after Census day from people asking, 'When am I going to get my form in the mail, when are they going to come to my house?'" Garza said.
The lawsuit also seeks to block what is called "district packing," in which a disproportionate number of minorities are crammed into a single political district, reducing the total number of districts with majority-minority populations.
In many cases, Garza says, lawmakers draw majority-minority political districts with populations much greater than the average district.
"Elections in Texas continue to be racially polarized," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit raises the specter of emotional court battles over redistricting nationwide, at a time when the way congressional districts are drawn has the potential to alter the political balance of power in the federal government.
Republicans control 26 district-redrawing state legislatures, and in 21 states Republicans control the legislature and the governor's office.
(Additional reporting by Wendell Marsh; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)