December 23, 2009 | New York Times | Original Article

Latino Leaders Use Churches in Census Bid


MIAMI — Fearing that millions of illegal immigrants may not be counted in the 2010 census, Latino leaders are mobilizing a nationwide drive to urge Hispanics to participate in the survey, including an intense push this week in evangelical Christian churches.

Latino groups contend that there was an undercount of nearly one million Latinos in the 2000 census, affecting the drawing of Congressional districts and the distribution of federal money. Hispanic organizations are far better organized for next year’s census, but they say that if illegal immigrants — an estimated eight million of whom are Latino — are not included, the undercount could be much greater.

One study suggests that Congressional delegations in eight states with large Hispanic populations could grow if all Latinos — the nation’s largest minority at some 47 million — are counted.

But the obstacles to an accurate count are significant. Many illegal immigrants are likely to be reluctant to fill out a government form that asks for their names, birthdates and telephone numbers. And the count comes three years into an immigration crackdown that was initiated by President George W. Bush but has continued apace, though less visibly, under President Obama.

Several of the nation’s largest associations of Hispanic evangelical churches have agreed to join the census campaign. But it has caused dissension among others, with one evangelical pastor leading a call for a boycott of the census, saying it would put pressure on the Obama administration and on Congress to grant legal status to illegal immigrants.

Some Roman Catholic leaders, moreover, have said they are reluctant to urge Latino parishioners to participate without greater assurances from the administration that illegal immigrants will not be identified or detained through the census.

The Constitution calls for all residents to be counted, and last month the Senate rejected a measure by Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, that would have included only United States citizens in the official tally.

In October, census officials said they would not ask the Department of Homeland Security to suspend immigration raids during the census period, reversing a policy from 2000, when an immigration moratorium was observed. But census officials say there is no change in a longstanding policy that they do not share identity data with the Department of Homeland Security or any other agency.

Latino political leaders see full participation in the census as the culmination of heightened activism that began in the spring of 2006, when hundreds of thousands of Latinos marched in the streets to protest legislation then in Congress that would have toughened laws against illegal immigration. In 2007 they held a nationwide campaign to have Latino immigrants become United States citizens. That was followed last year with a huge voter registration drive.

“We want to tap into that same spirit,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, known as Naleo, a bipartisan group that is a main organizer of the census drive. “We have to go back to everybody and say, ‘Just as you marched, just as you naturalized, just as you voted, now you have to be counted.’ ”

Arturo Vargas is among the Hispanic leaders urging participation in the 2010 census.

One strategy is to encourage Latino immigrants to return the census forms by mail, rather than waiting for a census taker’s knock on the door, which could frighten illegal immigrants wary of immigration agents.

To that end, groups like Naleo, the National Council of La Razaand others are moving to tap the expanding social networks and the power of persuasion of evangelical churches, which have seen huge growth among Latinos in the last decade. At a recent meeting with religious leaders in Miami, Naleo unveiled a poster for churches to use during the Christmas season to talk up the census. It depicts Mary and Joseph, recalling that they went to Bethlehem to participate in a census.

“Así nació Jesus,” the poster says. “That’s how Jesus was born.”

Evangelical leaders said last Wednesday that the poster would be displayed in more than 7,000 evangelical churches this week.

Among the evangelicals to embrace the effort is the Rev. Samuel Rodríguez Jr., a pastor from California who is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which includes more than 25,000 evangelical churches.

“I believe we pastors have a moral responsibility to educate our flock in an action that will help our communities move forward on the path of political empowerment,” Mr. Rodríguez said.

A new ally in Miami is Pastor José Victor Dugand, who can be found most days in his church in the southwest part of the city singing Christian rock music with a Latin lilt and expounding bilingually on the Bible.

Even on hectic weeknights, worshipers come by the hundreds to pray at his Ekklesia Global Church, bringing worries about lost jobs in South Florida’s battered economy as well as fears of immigration authorities. Lately, Mr. Dugand tells his followers they can increase their political influence and draw federal money to the community by participating in the census.

“I think we need to come to the light — we need to be counted,” he said. “Right now, I believe the government is totally off in the figures. We need to have a number that is closer to reality, so we can have better representation politically.”

When illegal immigrants in his church express worries, Mr. Dugand advises them that they should trust the census. “I tell them, ‘Don’t flee, don’t just escape,’ ” he said. “Help us build something here for our children.”

But the Rev. Miguel Angel Rivera, a New Jersey pastor who heads a smaller coalition of evangelical clergy, has called for a boycott of the census.

“We need to empower the undocumented immigrants by asking them not to participate,” Mr. Rivera said, “as a way to protest the lack of commitment from this Congress to do what is right and moral, which is comprehensive immigration reform.”

He is touring the country with his boycott call, and he has gained the support of some community leaders, including Nativo López, a Mexican-American activist in Los Angeles.

Nearly 12 million Latinos voted in November 2008, an increase of two million votes over 2004, according to an analysis by Andres Ramirez, a researcher at NDN, a Democratic advocacy organization. Now, in the first census since Hispanics passed blacks to become the second-largest population group in the United States, Hispanics want to extend that voting power with a census count that would support more elected representatives for their communities.

An analysis by NDN and America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group, projected that a full count of Hispanics would lead to a significant redrawing of the Congressional map, with six states picking up one Congressional seat (Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah), while Arizona would add two and Texas as many as four.