May 30, 2009

MAKING CENSUS SENSE

Written by nationally syndicated columnist - Miguel Perez

At first glance, it seems like a crazy idea, a counterproductive movement born out of frustration. But when you hear the people who are calling on illegal immigrants to boycott the 2010 census, some of their arguments make a lot of sense.

The boycott, organized by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, is meant to pressure politicians to fix our broken immigration system before the U.S. Census Bureau starts counting the U.S. population April 1, 2010.

Because so many Washington politicians, including President Barack Obama, have vowed to tackle immigration reform this year, April 1 seems like a good deadline to try to keep them honest. After all, the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress are moving very fast on many other important issues, and the Latino clergy members are giving them an extra three months to pass the comprehensive immigration reform they promised!

Nevertheless, for introducing the "radical" boycott idea, these Hispanic evangelical leaders have come under tremendous criticism from other Latino leaders. Some say they understand the motive but can't agree with the method. Others have charged that while the boycott may be well-intended, it ultimately will prove to be misguided and irresponsible because it would hurt the very immigrant communities the ministers are trying to defend. Others have gone as far as to question whether the whole thing is some kind of Republican conspiracy to undercount Latino immigrants in the 2010 census.

Of course, if the latter were true, it would mean that respected Latino clergy members followed a political agenda and conspired against their own communities, which is absurd!

These church leaders rightfully are speaking out in defense of their illegal immigrant brethren. They are seeking a path to legalization for the 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in the United States. They say they are tired of seeing how society tells these immigrants that they don't count — except for once every 10 years, when they are told they need to be counted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The coalition's leaders argue that the census figures that can be used to empower the immigrant communities are the same statistics that are used by anti-immigrant forces to persecute illegal immigrants. They argue that the towns that need their immigrant populations to be counted so they can get federal funds are often the same towns using those funds to discriminate against immigrants.

"Our church leaders have witnessed misuse of otherwise benign Census population data by state and local public officials in their efforts to pass and enact laws that assist in the perpetration of civil rights violations and abuses against undocumented workers and families," the coalition's chairman, the Rev. Miguel Rivera, said in a statement announcing the boycott.

It's a difficult choice. For many years, Latino leaders have joined local politicians in encouraging illegal immigrants to participate in censuses. They have gone through all kinds of publicity campaigns to convey the message that illegal immigrants need not fear census workers and that federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing information with immigration authorities.

Of course, these community leaders and politicians want everyone to be counted because census results will be used later to determine how billions of federal dollars are allocated among states, municipalities and even local community service organizations.

Can illegal immigrants gain from participating in the census? Of course! There is no question that there is a lot to be lost or gained from the results of the census. The higher the population of any particular area the more funding that area can expect from the federal government. Any area that is undercounted undoubtedly would lose its fair share of the federal budget.

For this reason, in the urban areas where most illegal immigrants reside, there have been many efforts to persuade illegal immigrants to cooperate with census workers. Some federally funded agencies that provide services to illegal immigrants could suffer budget cutbacks. And that's why suddenly asking illegal immigrants to boycott the census sounds a bit illogical.

But is it? Because census results also are used to determine political district lines and because some political careers may hang in the balance after those lines are redrawn, the census becomes a great weapon to hold politicians accountable.

Be on the lookout; the time has come again. Politicians will tell us they are working hard to ensure that minorities are counted accurately, but in fact, they will be trying to protect their seats.

There is no doubt that an effective illegal immigrant boycott of the census would hurt the immigrant communities and the municipalities where they live. But it would hurt the politicians even more! And that's why many Hispanic ministers have decided to ask their brethren to be ready to make some sacrifices and to give the politicians a deadline for keeping their immigration promises.

If the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress keep delaying immigration reform, if they want illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows only for the census, they may be setting themselves up for a huge surprise. If several million people simply disappeared because illegal immigrants boycotted the census, the politicians would have no one to blame but themselves.

"Antes de contar, deben legalizar," the church leaders are saying in Spanish. It means "before they count, they should legalize," and for this census, with so many politicians in power who allegedly support immigration reform, it makes a lot of sense.

To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at http://www.creators.com/.

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