ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The Census Bureau is waging an extensive campaign to make sure that minorities are counted in next year's census. That would include millions of illegal immigrants. That effort is being undermined by some of the very groups it's aimed at. Those groups want undocumented immigrants to boycott the census in protest.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden explains.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Reverend Miguel Rivera heads the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, 16,000 churches in 32 states. For years now, his pastors have been hearing complaints about the devastating effects of stepped-up immigration enforcement.
Reverend MIGUEL RIVERA (National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders): We're in the crisis, so we know exactly what is happening.
LUDDEN: Rivera estimates more than a third of his group's members are undocumented. And one day he had a flash of insight about all the local crackdowns and arrests they were facing.
Rev. RIVERA: The law enforcement has been very effective in areas where the data of Census 2000 has been used.
LUDDEN: That census made clear, Hispanics were growing in numbers, but they were far from feeling empowered by that. Then Rivera thought, who has a really big stake in the census? Members of Congress, of course, whose very seats and some $300 billion in federal funding depend on the decennial count.
Rev. RIVERA: 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.
Mr. NATIVO LOPEZ (Mexican American Political Association): Well, I thought that it was not the appropriate tactic for the moment, but well intentioned.
LUDDEN: Nativo Lopez heads the Mexican American Political Association. And for four decades, he's told members they should take part in the census. But Lopez found himself intrigued by this idea of a boycott. He took the issue to member forums and says he had an epiphany, Latinos told him they felt betrayed by government. President Obama, they said, is continuing the Bush administration's crackdown. And they felt among the hardest hit by the recession. One man who lost his home to foreclosure said he sought help at a legal aid society but was turned away because he's undocumented.
Mr. LOPEZ: And another person and another person gets up and therefore conclude, there is no incentive for me to cooperate with the federal government to conduct this count unless we get relief from the federal government and the types of issues that are devastating our families socially and economically.
Reverend LUIS CORTES (Esperanza): It's sad. It's unfortunate. Ultimately it means more political power for the people who don't like immigrants.
LUDDEN: Reverend Luis Cortes heads Esperanza, a community organization with its own network of churches. And he's leading opposition to the boycott effort. Cortes says he doesn't think it will make any difference in Congress, but, he says, a boycott would affect funding for fire departments, hospitals, public schools, things crucial for all residents, legal or not.
Rev. CORTES: 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.
LUDDEN: Each side has its moral arguments as well. Boycott advocate Reverend Rivera says the census harkens back to the days of slavery, since 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 for 60 percent of a man, and Native Americans: zero.
Mr. ARTURO VARGAS (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials): What Mr. Rivera would be advocating is that Latino immigrants make themselves, once again, zero percent of a person under the Constitution. To me, that's not just irresponsible, it's immoral.
LUDDEN: A spokesman says the Census Bureau is disappointed in the boycott effort and notes it's a constitutional mandate to count every person, legally present or not. He wouldn't say whether the bureau will fine boycotters, $100 is allowed by law. But Reverend 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.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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