March 11, 2010 | PODER Magazine | Original Article

The Tipping Point



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Beginning in mid-March every residence in the United States will receive an unassuming but vital piece of mail. Inside the envelope will be a bland government document with 10 questions. Filling in the block spaces will take about 10 minutes, yet those answers will determine everything from how much funding your state gets for healthcare to how many seats it will have in Congress for the next 10 years.

That is the power of the 2010 census in a nutshell. A process that comes around only once every decade, this years’ census is perhaps the most important in history for America’s 47 million Hispanics. Latino leaders and organizers see the census as a way to ensure that the voice of the Hispanic community is heard and recognized in decision-making circles. It also defines how much of a $400 billion federal pie goes to states to fund Medicaid, highway expansion, education for the poor and low-income housing.

Hispanic businesses, workers and elected officials stand to gain from a full and fair count, but getting one is by no means assured. The Hispanic population is historically hard to count, say census officials, and the continued divisiveness surrounding undocumented immigrants and immigration reform could push the trend downward. Even if Latinos participate, achieving greater political power will be a struggle.

Hispanic groups and leaders are, however, more prepared than they were for the last census in 2000. They see massive participation in the census as the zenith of years of mobilizing the Hispanic community. It comes on the back of immigration reform marches in 2006, a citizenship drive in 2007 that resulted in almost 450,000 Latinos becoming nationalized, and a 2008 voter registration campaign that helped get 10 million Hispanics to the polls in the last election.

“We’ve been trying to keep that momentum,” says Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). “Hopefully people will understand that participating in the census is the next step we need to take in this empowerment movement in the Latino community.”

Quite possibly the most significant outcome of the census is the allocation of congressional seats. The census is a legal requirement to even out the House of Representatives among the 50 states in response to the latest population shifts. Simple mathematical logic would dictate that with a greater share of the population, Hispanics should control more seats in Washington—leading to an increased discussion of issues on the Latino agenda.

The high expectations of Hispanic leaders are based on previous census population estimates, which show the Latino community is the fastest growing major race or ethnic group. There were about 36 million Hispanics in 2000, 42 million in 2005 and the latest projections pin the number just shy of 48 million for 2010. The Pew Research Center estimates Hispanics of all races will number 128 million in 2050, accounting for 29 percent of the population, and 60 percent of the nation’s growth over that period. Already Latinos represent one out of every five school-age children and one of every four newborns. More importantly, the rapid rise in the Hispanic community is due not to immigration but to births, meaning a greater number U.S. citizens with voting rights.


By the end of this year, the Census Bureau will provide the actual 2010 population for all 50 states, kicking off the process of reallocating congressional seats. The following April, county and neighborhood-specific data will be released, sparking hotly contested political negotiations across the country. Each state decides how to incorporate or eliminate congressional districts, with all parties trying to redraw the political map in their favor.

Hispanics have historically been an undercounted community. The problem lies in that a significant portion of Hispanics are what the Census Bureau calls “hard to count” populations. These groups generally include those who don’t speak English, have jobs on the margins of society or are unemployed, don’t own homes and, most notably, are undocumented immigrants. National leaders and advocates say Latinos were undercounted by as much as 1 million in 2000.

While the number of unauthorized immigrants (a majority are Hispanic) has fallen from just under 12 million in 2007 to 10.8 million last year, they still account for almost 3.5 percent of the U.S. population. Kenneth Prewitt, the 2000 census director, says increased media attention surrounding the immigration debate, along with the fear of being arrested by federal agents, will likely reduce Hispanic participation in the census and lead to a greater undercount.

“I think we will count a lower percentage of Hispanics in 2010, and since they’re a larger part of the population that means we are already looking at an undercount from what we had in 2000,” Prewitt says. “I’m more worried about whether we will have a fair census because a lot of the census-related benefits are calculated on proportionate shares instead of absolute numbers.”

Two things could reverse the undercount, Prewitt says. First, the Census Bureau received about $1 billion in stimulus funds that pushed the total budget close to $15 billion. In comparison, the 2000 budget was less than half that. “In the absence of stimulus money I would be more concerned about an undercount than I am,” he says.

The additional funds helped inflate the Census Bureau’s marketing budget to more than $338 million. Those funds developed 80 million census-related materials—from pencils to posters—in more than 28 languages. The bureau is also spending $133 million on advertising.

“Although the objective is to reach everyone, special emphasis is placed on really reaching and motivating” the hard-to-count segment, says Louis Maldonado, managing director of Dexposito & Partners, the ad agency charged with developing marketing material for the Latino community. “For some,” he notes, “there is a concern over providing personal information to the government, so communicating that their information is kept confidential, by law, is necessary to overcome any fear that might exist.”

It didn’t help that in October, the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, said it would not ask the Homeland Security Department to suspend raids against illegal immigrants during the most active census period. The decision is a departure from the stance taken in 2000, when the census bureau informally asked immigration officials to halt the raids in order to improve cooperation among the undocumented, Prewitt says. The Commerce Department sought a similar agreement in 2007 but was rebuked by the Bush administration. Raul Cisneros, the 2010 census chief publicity officer, says the bureau did not make the request to immigration officials because “they have their job and we have our job.”

A second factor that could tilt the potential undercount is the more experienced organization and preparation of the Hispanic community itself. Hispanic leaders have organized web-based campaigns armed with proven social networks and massive text-messaging databases.

The trusted voices of Christian pastors have also been recruited to assuage fears. Yet the issue of whether to support the census has split the Christian church itself. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which includes 16,000 churches in 32 states, called on undocumented immigrants to boycott the census as a way to protest against the lack of any movement on an immigration reform bill.

Those who support the census efforts say the boycott strategy is flawed and will backfire. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, an umbrella group of more than 25,000 evangelical churches, says a greater-than-expected Hispanic count will move Latinos from the fringes of society into the American mainstream. He has helped train member pastors to contextualize the group’s positive stance on the census in their sermons. “We’re not going to boycott the future of our children,” he says. “I think the census is the primary strategy that will enable us to push comprehensive immigration reform.” He understands, however, that those immigrants in the country illegally may be put off. “If I were an undocumented immigrant I would feel trepidation. It comes down to how much do you trust your government.”

If enough Hispanics trust the government the reward could be staggering. According to an analysis by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, a total of 11 seats in Congress will be reapportioned among eight states. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington will all get one new seat, while Texas will get four if current migration patterns continue.

Understanding why these states grew is important because it translates to where political power will shift. Hispanics accounted for more than 40 percent of the population growth in Arizona, Florida and Nevada. In Texas, the state that saw the largest population increase between 2000 and 2008, Hispanics accounted for 62 percent of the growth, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Even in the 10 states expected to lose seats, the growth among Hispanics helped offset what would have otherwise been greater losses. “I think we’re going to be surprised how much dispersal there has been in the Hispanic community,” says Frey. “It gives people a very clear picture. It gives them a rubber stamp to say, ‘Gee, this is a real national community.’”

Although Hispanics may indeed show they are a national community, their numbers won’t translate into true political representation if the new congressional district maps are drawn to reflect partisan priorities instead of demographic realities. As in the past, the chance to determine the political landscape for a decade may be too tempting for either party.

For Vargas, the NALEO president, redistricting is a clear opportunity for Hispanics to gain seats in Congress in 2012, when officials will be elected to the new districts. “In 2012 the number of Hispanic members will grow at least by four,” he says confidently. “If we have a fair redistricting process then we can expect an additional Latino majority district in Arizona, a Latino majority district in southern Nevada, two or three Latino majority districts in Texas, and an additional seat in Florida.”

The question is, will it be done fairly? The 1965 Voting Rights Act and multiple Supreme Court rulings have said electoral manipulation aimed at reducing the voice of minority voters in congressional elections is illegal. Gerrymandering perhaps poses the biggest threat to Hispanics seeking fair political power. The term was named after Elbridge Gerry, a former Massachusetts governor and vice president to James Madison who drew a state legislative district shaped like a huge salamander in order to pack supporters of a rival party into one district, leaving the rest of the state to his own supporters.

The Supreme Court has allowed partisan gerrymandering, in certain circumstances, as long as it doesn’t hurt racial or ethnic groups. But gerrymandering can unfairly diminish the influence of Hispanics and other minorities by spreading them so thin they can never elect anybody, or conversely, packing them so tightly they are limited to electing only a few elected leaders.

In 2003, Texas Republicans notoriously pushed through a new map that created a majority of Republican districts. Challenges to the final plan reached the Supreme Court, which approved all but one of the new districts. The only district struck down was said to have adversely limited Hispanic representation.

Texas and eight other states, mostly in the South, have to get permission or “preclearance” from the Justice Department before enacting any changes that affect voting. In 2005, The Washington Post reported Justice Department lawyers reviewing the Texas redistricting plan unanimously concluded it illegally affected Hispanic and black voting power in several districts. Senior Justice officials disagreed with their recommendations, however, and approved the plan.

Whether redistricting will fairly enhance Hispanic voting power in Texas will be defined by how the Justice Department handles redistricting under the Obama administration. It may be too early to tell but Hispanics can take comfort in the fact that one of their own is responsible for preclearance decisions. Thomas Perez, the assistant secretary of justice for civil rights, an Obama appointee, says he has already hired 20 lawyers and analysts to review census data and make sure no redistricting plans serve a discriminatory purpose or have a discriminatory effect. “We will certainly be aggressively enforcing all the voting acts rights laws,” Perez says.

Since the 2000 census, the Hispanic population in Texas has increased by 2.2 million, representing more than three fifths of the state’s population growth, says Karl Eschbach, the state demographer. Most of that growth occurred around the four main metropolitan areas—Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin and San Antonio—and in Lower Rio Grand River Valley near the border with Mexico. As a result, says Eschbach, Hispanics have changed the dynamic of the districts drawn by Republicans a few years ago. “Now the dilemma [Republicans] face in redistricting is the very rapid growth in the Hispanic population and the stagnation of the non-Hispanic white population,” he says.

The reason is simple: Latinos view the Democratic party as more attuned to their needs and issues, says Mark Lopez, the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Research Center. Throughout the decade, more than 40 percent of Latinos surveyed said Democrats were more concerned about Latinos, whereas only about 10 percent said the same about Republicans. In 2008 those numbers peaked, with 55 percent of Latinos saying Democrats cared more versus about 6 percent for Republicans. Recent surveys have shown Hispanics have come off those highs, like the rest of the electorate, but still remain at or above historic trend lines.

Instead of allowing state legislators to draw and approve the new political maps based on electoral outcomes, David Epstein, a professor of political science at Columbia University, suggests creating an independent commission to assess the detailed census data. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states have created redistricting commissions with map-making power. Of course, deciding who sits on those commissions is sure to lead to political tug-of-war.

Vargas agrees. He is particularly worried about the commission in California. Passed at the ballot box in 2008, the 14-member California commission will be made up five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. Government auditors will choose the commissioners from a pool made up of registered voters. So far, says Vargas, 19,000 have applied and 80 percent are non-Hispanic whites (in a state where whites account for only 50 percent of the population). “It appears to be seriously flawed,” says Vargas. “There is no guarantee that Latinos will be fairly represented on the commission.”

Trey Martinez Fischer, a Texas state representative (D-San Antonio) and chairman of Mexican American Legislative Caucus, says Hispanics have to make a stand because “we are the ones growing by leaps and bounds.”

“This is a very emotional issue,” he says, “but it also is a very partisan issue. This is the one issue that defines the political landscape for the next 10 years so it’s all hands on deck.”