October 5, 2009 | mariaesalinas.com | Original Article

Viewpoint: Ready to be counted

Monday, October 5, 2009 1:02 AM PDT

There are some things that just don't make sense. Asking people not to participate in the census is one of them. We are six months away from census day, a practice that comes around every 10 years, but like so many things these days, the census is getting a bit politicized.

There's a lot at stake, from government funding for programs and services to political representation, yet there are those - from both ends of the political spectrum - who insist on obstructing the process to move their own agenda.

On one side, you have ultraconservative groups fighting to have only U.S. citizens counted. (Legal status is not questioned in the census form.) To include undocumented immigrants and even legal permanent residents in the count, they claim, would give political advantage to states with higher immigrant populations. Legislation has been introduced in an attempt to amend the process, undermining the fact that some states could lose millions of dollars in much-needed funding.

On the other side, you have groups who are asking undocumented immigrants to boycott the census. Leading the pack is the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders. Among other things, it wrongly claims that data collected by the census often is used to support immigration raids. Also, according to the group's leader, the Rev. Miguel Rivera, boycotting the census is a way of pressuring legislators to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

"Asking immigrants to be counted without giving them a chance to become legal residents counters church teachings," says Rivera, who claims to represent 20,000 evangelical churches in 34 states. Thirty-nine percent of the church's 3.4 million members are undocumented. If undocumented immigrants were nonexistent in the census, why would we need a debate to legalize them?

Both positions are imprudent and counterproductive. There is no middle ground here. What we have is a constitutional mandate that says every person who lives in the United States is to be counted every 10 years. We certainly don't want to go back to the times in the 1800s when slaves were counted as two-fifths of a person and Native Americans were counted as zero if they had no white blood.

There have been a lot of mistakes along the way, overcounts and undercounts. In 1990, the census missed an estimated 8 million people, mostly immigrants and urban minorities, while about 4 million white people were counted twice, mostly college students and people who owned two homes. In 2000, there was an overcount of the total U.S. population, while Latinos were undercounted by about 3 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau is aiming for accuracy this time around.

National Latino organizations are not taking any chances, and are not waiting for the census to begin its count to encourage all Hispanics to participate. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials has teamed up with other civic groups and media partners to launch a campaign to make Latinos aware of the importance of being counted.

There are many challenges that need to be addressed, according to Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO. Among them, many Latinos have lost their homes due to foreclosures, have relocated or have moved in with other families, and risk not being counted. And although, for the first time ever, bilingual census forms will be sent out, they cover only 13 million households, in areas with a 20 percent or more Spanish-speaking population. Millions of immigrants who live in smaller communities and who do not know that they can request a form in a different language, including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian, also run the risk of being overlooked.

Being counted in the census is a right and a responsibility for everyone who lives within the borders of our country. Misguided efforts to thwart or boycott the census only will hurt our communities and our country as a whole.

>> You can reach Maria Elena Salinas at www.mariaesalinas.com