Concern Over Latino Evangelical Leader’s Call to Boycott U.S. Census

David Olson, Press-Enterprise (Riverside, California), May 9, 2009

As immigrant and Latino organizations gear up to urge illegal immigrants to participate in the 2010 census, a Latino evangelical leader is telling them to boycott the count unless comprehensive immigration reform is enacted.

The Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the Washington-based National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, appears to be alone among national Latino leaders in promoting a boycott.

But his call worries immigration-rights advocates, who say it could lead to fewer services in immigrant communities and hurt efforts to increase Latino political influence. Census population counts are used to shape congressional districts and help determine where federal funding goes.

Local immigration activists are planning outreach campaigns to encourage census participation. The Census Bureau is working with community groups across the country to promote the benefits of filling out the census.

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Rodriguez said even if a few hundred thousand of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants do not participate, it could mean millions of dollars in lost funding.

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Many illegal immigrants fear answering an official government survey like the census or talking with a government employee, believing it could lead to deportation, said Laura Barrera, deputy director for the Census for the Los Angeles-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The boycott taps into those fears, she said.

The 2000 census undercounted the Hispanic population by about 3 percent, Barrera said. The Census Bureau estimates the 2000 Hispanic undercount was less than 1 percent, down from an undercount of about 5 percent in 1990, said Raul Cisneros, a census spokesman.

Barrera’s group is launching a Spanish-language media campaign in October to reassure immigrants and others that census answers are not shared with other government agencies. Census employees face fines or jail for disclosing information.

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Rivera said he is not convinced the census information will remain confidential, despite the law. And he believes that population data from the census can be combined with voter statistics to determine which areas have the largest illegal-immigrant populations, which could lead to harsh anti-illegal-immigrant laws and Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdowns.

Rivera said he hopes the boycott threat helps lead to a push for legalization of millions of illegal immigrants.

“If governors want to have that funding in their states, and if mayors want to have that funding in their cities, they need to stop looking the other way and roll up their sleeves and put pressure on Congress to bring about comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.

Population data from the census help determine how about $300 billion in federal funding each year is distributed. A smaller population for a city, county or state leads to less funding.

Census data also is used to form congressional districts, which are created based upon total population, including illegal immigrants.

For the first time this year, census forms will be mailed to about 13 million households–about half of all Latino homes–in English and Spanish, Cisneros said.

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