Politics & Policy

Latinos to Boycott Census?

Amid the most expensive census preparations in history and a PR blitz to ensure an accurate tally, some leaders are encouraging Latinos to forego the survey altogether. Mixed signals and high stakes are leaving many unsure how to proceed.

The Census Bureau has long had trouble counting Latinos. Robert Groves, recently nominated for Director of the Census Bureau, estimated that about 1 million Latinos (of the roughly 50 million in the country) went uncounted in the 2000 enumeration. Blaming unlisted addresses, households with large families and high mobility rates for the faulty tabulation, many predict that the recession and recent foreclosures in the Latino community will make an accurate count even more unlikely this March.

Determined not to succumb to the odds, however, the Census Bureau and some Latino interest groups are taking steps to ensure full representation. The Census Bureau has vowed to send out 13 million copies of the survey with a complete Spanish translation to households in heavily Hispanic communities across the country. They have also launched a campaign proclaiming the importance of census participation and assuring the confidentiality of all information disclosed. Republicans estimate the cost of the campaign over the next year will amount to several tens of millions of dollars.

This will run alongside the Ya es hora, ¡HÁGASE CONTAR! (It’s time, make yourself count!) campaign, staged by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), in partnership with other Latino interest groups, including media heavyhitter Univision, to encourage Latinos to “stand up and be counted.” And Rep. William Clay (D – MO) who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees Census data collection, announced April 6th that he plans to ask the administration to halt raids over the next year to ensure statistical accuracy. This has been done in other census years, including the most recent in 2000.

Meanwhile, the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders (shortened to CONLAMIC, based on the Spanish translation) is launching its own initiative—one to boycott the census. Encouraging Hispanics across the nation to use census participation as a bargaining chip for immigration reform, CONLAMIC hopes to convince lawmakers to give temporary work visas to undocumented workers and provide easier pathways to citizenship. In some parts of the country, like Phoenix, Latinos are also encouraged to boycott as a way to protest crackdowns on illegal immigrants.

Amidst such conflicting messages, Latinos find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, pro-census activists point out that census stats are used to allocate federal block grants, which can cover everything from healthcare to law enforcement. With more than $300 billion at stake, plus stimulus money, which also being doled out according to census data, boosting population stats in Hispanic areas could benefit Latinos. Census data is similarly used to determine seat allocation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College. Of the nine states that stand to gain representatives in the upcoming enumeration, at least four of them (Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Texas) have large Hispanic populations.

Advocates stress that the Census does not ask for about immigration status, nor does it request a Social Security number. Using the Census for deportation is illegal under federal law, and no authority can obtain personal identifiable data from the Census Bureau. Nonetheless, opponents argue, Hispanics have reason to mistrust the Census Bureau. A report released by Fordham University last month confirmed that the Census Bureau had forwarded information about Japanese-Americans from the 1940 census to American surveillance agencies during WWII. And again in 2004, the Census Bureau gave the Department of Homeland Security detailed information of Arab-American populations by city and zip code. The Census Bureau has yet to acknowledge its wrongdoing in either case.

While refusing to fill out the census is not a deportable offense (it is punishable by fines between $100 and $500), some worry that increased funding to Hispanic areas would simply mean stepped up raids against illegal residents. Moreover, they argue, increased state representation means nothing if illegal residents have no path to American citizenship. Compounded by frustration that Obama has yet to move on his campaign promises of immigration reform, more Latinos, as well as the ethnic media, are beginning to come around to CONLAMIC’s message.

Census participation is a sticky issue for all of the US’s estimated 12 million illegal residents, but when it intersects with powerful interest groups, it can become an overtly political maneuver. Only time will tell which tactic Latinos choose. Because legal and illegal immigrants have different reasons to participate—or boycott—and with the incentives and disincentives as complex as they are, we can hardly expect a uniform response. Whatever the exact result, it is clear that the 2010 enumeration will reflect political allegiances as much as it does the populace itself.

Tags: governance, west coast, south, central, st. louis, phoenix, census, maggie tishman, homeland security, william clay