A nationwide group of Latino ministers has a message for illegal immigrants: Stand up, but refuse to be counted in the 2010 U.S. census.
The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders is urging undocumented immigrants to boycott the census — which is used to calculate everything from federal funding to congressional representation — unless Congress first passes immigration reform.
"The same data that helps the Latino community to seek political empowerment, the same numbers that are used to show how strong we are and prove our growing numbers, that's the same data the anti-immigrant forces use against us," the Rev. Miguel Rivera, the head of the coalition, said Tuesday.
Census numbers have been used to target and repress the undocumented in the past, Rivera said, and the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants need a path to legalization before they agree to have their numbers count.
"When we weigh, in the balance, how many benefits the undocumented get by letting themselves be counted, it's more on the side of funding more police officers to arrest them, and more immigration agents to deport them and disrupt families," Rivera said. "We can't ask them to do something that is going to bring more sadness to this community."
'We are disappointed'
Census officials stress that information is strictly confidential, and that they don't inquire about immigration status or ask for a Social Security number. It's required by the Constitution that every person residing in America be included.
"Our job is to count every single person," said Raul Cisneros, a spokesman for the census. "We are disappointed that any organization would urge anyone to not participate in the 2010 Census."
The idea grew out of the feeling that census figures from 2000 were used by law enforcement and anti-immigrant forces to better target undocumented populations, Rivera said, affecting many congregants of his group's more than 16,000 member churches in 34 states.
The proposed boycott comes amid what census organizers say is an unprecedented mobilization at the national, state and local levels to ensure that every person residing in the United States — regardless of immigration status — is counted in 2010.
Several national Latino organizations, including The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials — or NALEO — are criticizing the proposed boycott at a time when they are mobilizing to make sure the Hispanic community is not undercounted. The 2000 census missed about 3 percent of the Hispanic population.
Scaring undocumented immigrants away from participating in the census doesn't make sense, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO and a member of the Decennial Census advisory committee.
"To do this boycott to pressure comprehensive immigration reform is like cutting off your nose to spite your face," Vargas said. "There is no connection between the census and immigration reform; it's undermining the community by encouraging an undercount; and it's misguided and irresponsible."
'Encouraging people to break the law'
It also places the undocumented at further risk to refuse answering the census, Vargas said.
"The census is confidential and is a constitutional requirement," Vargas said. "In essence, they're encouraging people to break the law."
Refusing or neglecting to answer a census inquiry is not in itself a deportable offense, but is punishable with a fine of as much as $100, according to U.S. law. The fine can reach as much as $500 for providing false information.
Rivera said that he supports efforts to count legal immigrants, but that the participation of illegal immigrants in the census does nothing to advance their quest to legalize.
"This is where the power comes in: If there's a 12 million person deficiency in the census, if 12 million undocumented people are not counted," he said. "Even though they don't vote, they are being used as guinea pigs to get money for cities."
Such attitudes reflect a misunderstanding of how the census is used, Vargas said, and threaten to undermine unity as the immigration reform fight resurfaces on the Washington agenda.
"To the undocumented, and to everybody in the Latino community, we are on a historic path," Vargas said. "I think these pastors understand that; that's why they want to see comprehensive immigration reform. We all want it, but there's probably a more impactful way to get us there than if we have an undercount."