Immigrants Urged Not To Participate In Census Leaders with the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders are urging undocumented immigrants not to participate in the upcoming U.S. Census. The Rev. Miguel Rivera, the group's leader hopes a boycott will pressure lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform. But the Rev. Luis Cortes, who leads another Latino faith-based group, opposes that strategy.

Immigrants Urged Not To Participate In Census

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina celebrates a milestone. We speak with a college student who was forced to flee New Orleans just weeks into her freshman year. She graduated this weekend. We'll hear what made her stay in New Orleans, how she got through it all, and what her plans are now. That's a little later.

But first, being counted. In the next several months, most of us will be asked - one way or another - to participate in the 2010 census. When the count is all done, the federal government will use these figures to set representation in Congress and local and state governments will use the numbers to set funding for all kinds of programs. So, it's a big deal.

That's why most minority leaders are making a special effort to get their constituents to participate. They're pulling out all the stops, using ethnic media, getting celebrities to urge participation. But one group of Latino pastors wants the undocumented to boycott the census, unless Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform.

Joining us to talk more about this is the Reverend Miguel Rivera, he is chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders. That group is leading the Boycott effort. Also with us is the Reverend Luis Cortes, president and CEO of Esperanza. It's a network of Hispanic churches in the U.S. And his group is urging everyone to participate in the census and reject the boycott. They're both with me. Welcome to both of you. Thank you for joining us.

Reverend MIGUEL RIVERA (Chairman, National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders): Thank you, Michel, it's great to be on again.

Reverend LUIS CORTES (President and CEO, Esperanza): Good morning. Thanks, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Reverend Miguel Rivera, can I start with you, since this is - you're driving this train. You have no objection to the census itself, but you just don't believe - do I have that right, that the immigration status will not become an issue at some point because of the census?

Rev. RIVERA: Well, basically our matter is a matter of principle. We are for a strong and accurate census count. And we urge every member of our church who is a citizen or a legal resident in this country to participate in the census. Our concern arouses that - because the data of the census 2000 was a perfect tool by opportunist politicians to come up with ordinances and local laws to establish programs like the 287(g) plan, which basically empowers local police officers to come against our undocumented people, immigrants in this country.

So our position is asking the undocumented immigrants, members of our churches not to participate unless they have the assurance and the constitutional guarantees. And that's only can happen if members of Congress will pass comprehensive immigration (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Well, but the - census officials and government officials already say that that information will not be used in that way. You just don't believe that? It's not that they could control it.

Rev. RIVERA: It's not a matter of believing, it's a matter of what is a fact. Today, we're giving to the press a report which establishes and confirms that the Patriot Act overwrites and oversees the Title 13 which is a confidentiality title for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

So the reality is that even if that is not - even besides that fact, there's the facts that the 63 counties, where the last census data reflects an increment, an increase, of Latino population knowing many political opportunists - that among the Latinos are the greater members of the undocumented community in the country - they just come against the same community that is being counted that helps finance all of this programs and creates more redistricting for political empowerment, which the Latino undocumented community does not benefit at all.

MARTIN: Let me just say at this point that we contacted the Census Bureau about Rev. Rivera's point and they provided this statement. They said that, quote, "Our job is to count every single person. We are disappointed that any organization would urge anyone to not participate in the 2010 census."

Reverend Cortes, you've been very vocal in opposition to this boycott. What about Reverend Rivera's point? His point is that, well, you heard his point, that once this information could be misused and absent a political context for addressing the larger issue that the jurisdictions will get the benefit of these numbers, but that the people - once their presence is highlighted - will then be subjected to further harassment.

Rev. CORTES: The census itself does not ask anyone specifically if they are legal or illegal, or documented or documented. And our problem with the strategy is that it punishes the poor and the politically disenfranchised. And so, for us, we see it as hurting poor communities because they'll be undercounted. And you have to remember the census doesn't ask citizen status. So, undercounting ultimately hurts the undocumented themselves in many ways.

The count helps establish how much money will go to an area for disaster relief, how much money goes into an area for health care which includes emergency rooms, which is where the bulk of the undocumented have to go because they don't have health care in some cases. It also hurts public school funding, where the undocumented children in this country have a right to attend. It hurts local public transportation, which is what the undocumented need to use because normally that is their major mode of transportation. It hurts public libraries. It even hurts senior citizen services.

So it also means that to boycott, it means that there will be less resources, not just during this season, where we're all fighting for comprehensive immigration reform. And it is something that we all want and this country desperately needs. But it also means that we're hurting a community for an entire decade. I don't agree with the strategy. I'm sure that many xenophobic people agree with it, many racial separatists agree with it and the anti-immigrant groups in this country would agree with the strategy.

Ultimately, I don't think the strategy will help push comprehensive immigration reform. And in this case, Reverend Rivera and I are completely in agreement. We need and must have comprehensive immigration.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in briefly to say that if you're just tuning in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And I'm speaking with Reverend Miguel Rivera, who's leading an effort to urge undocumented Latino immigrants in particular to boycott the census. And I'm also speaking with the Reverend Luis Cortes, who opposes that strategy.

Reverend Rivera, what about Reverend Cortes' point, is that's kind of - and forgive me for using this language - it's a Hail Mary play, the argument that this will pressure lawmakers to push for comprehensive immigration reform is -may or may not work. But if you don't have people counted, then there are clear effects which will be felt.

Rev. RIVERA: Well, Reverend Cortes made the case for our position. Let's put it this way, the reality is that Congress has done nothing so far to start a true move for comprehensive immigration reform. President Barack Obama promised that it will happen in his first year in the White House. And that means that members of Congress, especially Democrats who have the majority in the House and almost in the Senate, they have from the 1st of April 2009, which is a couple of days ago, to the 31st of March 2010.

That is sufficient time for members of Congress, basically because of the same reasons that Reverend Cortes presented. We don't want to lose money for schools, we don't want to lose money for infrastructure, we don't want to lose money to help the poor, we don't want to lose money for all of those benefits and blessings that the census is supposed to bring. So, that means that if members of Congress, if mayors, if governors who are in the - here in this program, if they don't want to be confronted with that reality, then let's push for comprehensive immigration reform.

MARTIN: You're not worried that the communication signals will get crossed here? I mean there's been such a history of undercounting of minorities in this country and the public (unintelligible) push has been to try to get people to participate. That once you've told people not to participate, that you won't be able to undo that message, even if the immigration reform is passed.

Rev. RIVERA: Well, the discipline of the Latino Evangelical Church has been an example of how to deal with these issues in the past. I cannot spoke - I cannot speak before the whole community, but I know for a fact that when a pastor comes in the pulpit and says this has to be done or we should avoid this - that happens.

MARTIN: Reverend Cortes, what about Reverend Rivera's point, is that the urgency to pass this immigration reform for your constituents, for the folks that you care about is so urgent that essentially all available means need to be explored?

Rev. CORTES: Well, it is an urgent need and I just think and I believe most of my colleagues and the church itself believes that political representation by our communities and the taking care of the census and the needs that the census provides for is as important. We have to remember we are underfunded drastically in many areas in our communities because of the undercount from the year 2000. The idea to create disengagement by Latino non-citizens may also lead to the idea to create disengagement by Latino citizens, at a time when we are the largest minority with less government investment.

So I just think that the idea perpetuates one wrong with another. And for us I think - it's not I think, for us we believe we can achieve both. I think there are other things we can boycott. I think there are other things we can do to force and to push our legislators to address the issue. In this case we are going to be punishing Latino or legislators who represent Latino communities against those who don't represent Latino communities.

MARTIN: Reverend Rivera, the one think that I'm curious about is, I understand your argument about the political strategy but in the census your other argument is that these numbers will be used to foment a backlash. Do you not think that these communities don't know that people already live there, that people of Latino background, whether they're documented or undocumented already live there? The kids are in the school - the kids are in the schools, people are in their hospitals - what makes you thing that would somehow - there would not be a backlash if people don't have formal recognition of their presence?

Rev. RIVERA: Well, the facts are there. The census of the 1990 was not so aggressive, at least from the perspective of the reality of how many undocumented people were in the country, like 2000. After the data from the census 2000 was published in 2003, all of a sudden 63 counties - well, not all of them but started this type of anti-immigrant sentiment. I am talking about Escondido, California.

I'm talking about Riverside, New Jersey, (unintelligible) Pennsylvania, the whole state of Oklahoma, by the way. So what we're trying to say is that when we put side by side the reality that undocumented families, members of our churches are being punished, separated, deported, there is no way that we can stay with our arms crossed and talk to members of our churches who are undocumented and not empower them to understand the facts.

MARTIN: Okay, we…

Rev. RIVERA: The facts are that there is without any comprehensive immigration reform, counting or let themselves count what means is moving forward to more aggressive political, sorry…

MARTIN: I'm afraid we have to leave it there Reverend, forgive me. Reverend Miguel Rivera is chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders. He was kind enough to join us from WBGO in Newark. We were also joined by the Reverend Luis Cortes, president and CEO of Esperanza, a faith-based network of Hispanic churches in the U.S., and he was kind enough to join us on the phone from Phoenix, Arizona. I thank you both so much for joining us.

Rev. RIVERA: Thank you.

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