Immigration Activists Urge Census Boycott

Maria Sacchetti, Boston Globe, September 8, 2009

A small but vocal group of advocates is urging illegal immigrants and their supporters nationwide to boycott the 2010 Census to protest the government’s inaction on immigration legislation, a move that, if successful, could cost Massachusetts and other states millions of dollars.

The campaign is setting off alarms across the United States because census figures are crucial to determining how much federal funding cities and towns receive. A large-scale boycott, state officials and prominent pro-immigrant groups warn, could force Massachusetts to cut services from school lunch programs to highway construction, and heighten its chances of losing a seat in Congress.

But proponents say the boycott would pressure politicians to address problems illegal immigrants face every day–such as long separations from their families back home–and pursue a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s immigration system that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants.

“Legalize us before you count us,” Fausto da Rocha, a Brazilian immigrant leader in Boston said on a talk-radio show in Quincy last week, where callers from as far away as Brunswick, Maine, expressed support for the boycott. “Politics is about power and money, and by not giving your information, you’ll be taking away money and power from the politicians.”

The proposed boycott–organized this spring by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, a group based in Washington that represents 20,000 churches nationwide, including 300 in Massachusetts–is stirring deep divisions among immigrant communities. It faces stiff opposition from a string of advocacy groups, including the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the Service Employees International Union, and the Brazilian Immigrant Center. To this point, the boycott effort has revolved mainly around word-of-mouth, talk radio, and blog entries by some members of participating churches.

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While the boycott is a national effort, states with significant percentages of immigrants such as Massachusetts stand to lose more because of formulas that base federal funding on population. Last year, Massachusetts received $11.4 billion in federal funds, and people who shun the census could cost the state about $1,755 apiece, said Brian McNiff , spokesman for the Massachusetts secretary of state.

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Participation in the census is required by law every 10 years so the government can obtain an accurate count of every resident in the United States. But the fine for failure to register is only $100, and the Census Bureau has generally not pursued violators. Instead, the agency encourages participation by spending millions in advertising and on workers who speak different languages.

A boycott would put the state at risk politically, said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. Because of a population shift to the South and West, he said, Massachusetts is at risk of losing one of its 10 congressional districts.

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But proponents of a boycott say it is a chance to grab the attention of politicians who have failed to pass legislation addressing illegal immigrants, even as their numbers have swelled to 12 million nationwide and 190,000 in Massachusetts–or about 1 in 5 immigrants. Overall, 14 percent of the state’s population is foreign born; most are here legally.

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The idea of a boycott appears to have a sympathetic ear among many immigrants and their backers who called into the Quincy radio show last week.

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