Hispanics Divided Over Census Boycott

What do Camden County in North Carolina and Kendall County in Illinois have in common? They're among the U.S. counties with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations. An interactive map developed by the Pew Hispanic Center shows this data as well as Hispanic population by county in the U.S. since 1980.

The Census Bureau is waging an extensive campaign to make sure that minorities, including millions of illegal immigrants, are counted in next year's census.

But some in the Hispanic community are trying to undermine that effort. They want undocumented immigrants to boycott the census to send a protest message to Congress about the need to overhaul immigration laws.

A Stake In The Census

The Rev. Miguel Rivera heads the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which comprises 16,000 churches in 32 states. For years now, his pastors have been hearing complaints about the effects of stepped-up immigration enforcement.

Rivera estimates more than a third of his group's congregants are undocumented. One day, he says he had a flash of insight about all the local crackdowns and arrests they were facing.

"Law enforcement has been very effective in areas where the data of Census 2000 has been used," Rivera says.

That census made clear Hispanics were growing in numbers, but Rivera says they were far from feeling empowered.

Then Rivera thought about who has a really big stake in the upcoming census. He realized that members of Congress do — their very seats and billions of dollars in funding depend on the decennial count. The government distributes some $300 billion to states each year based on what is learned from the census.

"So if they don't want lacking of funding for their constituents, maybe losing seats at the congressional level, then what they have to do is roll their sleeves and move forward with comprehensive immigration reform," Rivera says.

To Boycott Or Not?

Nativo Lopez, who heads the Mexican American Political Association, has told his members for four decades that they should take part in the census.

Initially he thought that the boycott idea was well intentioned but "not the appropriate tactic for the moment."

But then Lopez found himself intrigued.

He took the issue to member forums and says he had an epiphany: Latinos are in no mood to support a federal undertaking like the census when they feel that government has betrayed them. As Lopez would go around the room seeking opinions, Latinos told him that President Obama seems to be merely continuing the Bush administration's immigration crackdown. And they felt that government concern about the recession's impact does not extend to them.

Lopez says one man who lost his home to foreclosure suspected fraud, but when he sought help at a legal aid society he was turned away because he's undocumented.

Member after member at forums stood up with a story to tell, Lopez says, leading him conclude that "there is no incentive for me to cooperate with the federal government to conduct this count unless we get relief from the federal government on the types of issues that are devastating our families socially and economically."

Leading the opposition against the boycott effort is the Rev. Luis Cortes, who heads Esperanza, a community organization with its own network of churches. Cortes doesn't think the boycott will make any difference to Congress.

"It's sad. It's unfortunate. Ultimately, it means more political power for the people who don't like immigrants," Cortes says.

A boycott would affect funding for fire departments, hospitals, public schools — things crucial for all residents, legal or not — Cortes says.

"You're going to take a community that has lot of poor folks and undocumented people who are not doing well, or struggling economically, and you're taking resources out of that neighborhood and redistributing them around the rest of the country," Cortes says.

Zero Percent

Each side has its moral arguments as well.

Boycott advocate Rivera says the census harkens back to the days of slavery, because undocumented immigrants are counted but not granted equal benefits.

Arturo Vargas, of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, draws a different analogy. He says when the census began in 1790, black slaves only counted as 60 percent of a man — and Native Americans, as zero.

"What Mr. Rivera would be advocating is that Latino immigrants make themselves once again zero percent of a person under the Constitution," Vargas says. "To me, that's not just irresponsible, it's immoral."

A spokesman says the Census Bureau is disappointed in the boycott effort and notes there is a constitutional mandate to count every person, legally present or not. He wouldn't say whether the bureau will fine boycotters $100 as allowed by law.

But Rivera insists his supporters are ready to pay. He says he may even expand the boycott effort, asking legal and U.S. citizen Hispanics to also not be counted.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.