Photo courtesy El Paso Matters
El Paso County’s population in the 2020 census count was 865,657, an 8% increase over the prior census in 2010 that marked the county’s slowest period of growth since the Great Depression, according to data released on Thursday.
The official population count will impact El Pasoans for the next decade because the numbers are used for everything from political representation to federal and state spending. El Paso County’s growth rate was half of the state’s 15.9% population growth between 2010 and 2020, which means El Paso will have less political clout at the state and federal level after political boundaries are redrawn later this year by the Texas Legislature.
The city of El Paso’s population in the 2020 census was 678,815, an increase of less than 5% over the 2010 census. That means that the county population outside the El Paso city limits grew by 23% between 2010 and 2020.
Hear more: Story author Robert Moore and KTEP-FM news director Angela Kocherga talk about the meaning of the new census numbers. Tune it at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Friday at 88.5 FM.
Socorro is the second-largest incorporated area in El Paso County, with a 2020 census count of 34,306, a 7% increase over 2010. Horizon City, the county’s third-largest incorporated area, had 22,489 people in the 2020 census, up 34% in the past 10 years.
According to the Census Bureau, 82.6% of El Pasoans identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2020 census, up from 82.2% in 2010.
The most immediate impact from El Paso’s comparatively slow population growth likely will be in the number of seats the county has in the Texas House of Representatives.
El Paso County has had five members of the Texas House since the 1980s. But the census population numbers released on Thursday will entitle El Paso to 4.5 House seats.
The pending release of the census population figures, and the impact on the redistricting process, was a key reason that three members of the El Paso House delegation — Joe Moody, Mary González and Art Fierro — made the controversial decision to return to Austin and end their participation in a Democratic quorum break aimed at derailing Republican efforts to change voting practices in Texas.
The Legislature will formally take up redistricting — the redrawing of state legislative and congressional boundaries — at a special session later this year. But the planning for that effort will heat up with the release of the census numbers, Moody said.
“The projections we’ve received over time, and I serve on the Redistricting Committee, have not painted a rosy picture for El Paso County in terms of maintaining five of those seats. We’ve known that for some time,” Moody said. “What shape that takes certainly weighed heavily on our decision. Because if we know the numbers are what they are, then we absolutely need to be at the table to secure as much representation as we can as a community.”
At least one Texas House seat currently held by an El Pasoan will be spread across multiple counties after redistricting, meaning El Paso voters will play a diminished voting role in at least one seat. Because of El Paso’s geography — bounded by New Mexico on the north and northeast, and by Mexico to the south — any House district only partially in El Paso would have to go to the east, through Hudspeth County.
House District 75, currently represented by González, is the only El Paso House seat that currently borders Hudspeth County. But González said it would be premature to say which El Paso district will include other counties when lines are redrawn.
“I was discussing something with (House Natural Resources Committee) Chairman Tracy King yesterday on the floor and he said it is fascinating the ways lines can be drawn that you never even considered,” González said. “So at this point, I think it would be too early to say what’s at risk. But we do know it’s one of the most important conversations that will impact our community for the next decade.”
The Texas Legislature also will redraw congressional boundaries. Since the 2010 census, most of El Paso has been in the 16th Congressional District currently represented by Democrat Veronica Escobar. A small part of eastern El Paso County and the Lower Valley have been in the 23rd Congressional District, currently represented by Republican Tony Gonzales.
Following the 2010 census, El Paso’s population was enough for 1.2 of Texas’ 36 U.S. House seats. The Legislature placed about 670,000 El Pasoans in the 16th Congressional District and about 130,000 in the 23rd after the 2010 census.
Based on the 2020 results, El Paso has enough population for 1.13 of the state’s 38 U.S. House seats starting with the 2022 elections.
That likely means that about 770,000 El Paso County residents will wind up in the 16th Congressional District, with about 95,000 making up a smaller proportion of another district.
The new population numbers, which go down to the neighborhood level, will be used by the city, county and school districts to shape new political boundaries in the coming months.
A sluggish decade for growth in El Paso
The official population numbers released on Thursday confirmed what several years of Census Bureau estimates have shown — El Paso County has had comparatively little population growth since the 2010 census.
However, the official population — 865,657 — is significantly higher than the estimates, which had put El Paso’s population at closer to 840,000.
Through its history, El Paso has shown steady and sometimes rapid population growth. The only time El Paso’s population declined between censuses was 1930-40, when the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression.
El Paso’s 8% population increase between 2010 and 2020 was — by far — the slowest growth rate since between the 1930 and 1940 censuses.
Nationwide, the population grew by 7.4% between the 2010 and 2020, the nation’s slowest growth rate since the 1930s.
Population estimates released earlier this year by the Census Bureau indicated that El Paso’s slowing population growth has been driven by a huge movement of people out of El Paso to other U.S. counties.
The choice of where to live is based on many factors, but average wages in El Paso are about two-thirds the state and national rates. The divide is even more pronounced for private-sector workers.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award.
Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.