October 3, 2009 | Herald Salinas Bureau

Latinos get mixed message on census

By Claudia Melendez Salinas

Herald Salinas Bureau

A coalition of Latino organizations is urging all Latinos to stand up and be counted.

In response to efforts by immigration-reform activists to boycott the 2010 census unless Congress approves new immigration laws, the National Association for Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) wants all Latinos to participate in the decennial count, regardless of their immigration status.

On Thursday, the association and its media partners, Univision and ImpreMedia, launched the campaign "Ya Es Hora - H gase Contar" ("It's Time - Make Yourself Count"), aimed at dispelling fears in the immigrant community about possible repercussions for participating in the census.

"We have the enormous challenge of convincing everyone in the country to participate in the national count, regardless of race, ethnicity or citizenship status," Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said at a news conference in Los Angeles. "We are counting on community-based initiatives like Ya Es Hora to partner with us in spreading the word that the 2010 census is easy, important and safe."

The campaign includes public service announcements on Univision and Telemundo, the largest Spanish-language networks in the United States, and a call to all Latino elected officials to promote the count in their communities.

It has always been a challenge for the Census Bureau to reach underserved groups, such as the poor and recent immigrants. Census workers are sworn to keep the information they gather confidential and, even though they ask what country the respondents were born in, they are not supposed to ask for their immigration status under census regulations.

But this year, the challenge appears to have grown. A campaign to boycott the census unless Congress approves some form of legalization for the country's estimated 12million undocumented workers is in full force.

"Why should we cooperate with a government that does not cooperate with us, but continues to prosecute us and, under the Obama administration, we have enforcement only, rather than immigration reform?" said Nativo Lopez, president of Hermandad Mexicana and a prominent immigration-rights activist. "In the past, we've promoted the census, but now we're ardent promoters of 'Antes de contar, tienes que legalizar.' Until you legalize me, don't count me."

A full count of the population every 10 years is mandated by the Constitution, but Latino-rights advocates say that fear of being deported prevented about 1million Latinos from being counted in 2000. Population data gathered by the Census Bureau is used not only to draw district lines at local, state and national levels, but is also used to allocate more than $400billion in federal funds annually to communities through Medicare, child care and school lunch programs, and children's health insurance. But promoters of the boycott, including the Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, argue that undocumented immigrants should not answer the census because they're not entitled to the benefits it provides. They also say lawmakers who have retained or gained their seats based on the Latino population increase have not come out in defense of immigrant communities and pushed harder for immigration reform.

"With the census comes redistricting and electing more Latinos to office, and these are the same political leaders at the local and federal level not speaking out, not proposing the changes we need," Lopez said.

Ironically, calling for a boycott of the census aligns immigrant-rights promoters with anti-immigrant organizations, which seek to deny representation for people who are illegally in the country.

"It's our tactic that demands something from the government, it's their tactic to exclude immigrants from civil society," Lopez said. "While there is some coincidence in that both sides are calling for the government not to count the immigrants, we're calling on immigrants not to comply with federal law and refuse to participate in the process."

It's not that NALEO and other Latino organizations are turning their back on the need for immigration reform; but the census is a tool of representation that should not be ignored, they said.

"We know there's a need for immigration reform, and that process is being developed. ... But separate from that, the need to make sure our community is informed is the best way to achieve reform. The census is confidential and we want to make sure the community hears that," said Erica Bernal, NALEO's director of communication.

For Monterey County immigrant-rights advocate Sabino Lopez, the idea of boycotting the census is misguided, even if its purpose is to pressure Congress into legalizing undocumented immigrants.

"These people are contributing to the economy. Even if they don't receive services, they pay sales taxes; when they purchase something they're contributing to the country's economy," Sabino Lopez said. "We can't, even if some want to, be invisible. This has also been part of the struggle, to stop being invisible. To be seen with respect."

Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or cmelendez@montereyherald.com.