Angered by President Obama’s lack of success in legalizing illegal immigrants, some Hispanic activists are urging all Hispanics to boycott the 2010 census as a sign of displeasure.
Other groups have asked the federal government to suspend immigration raids while census takers are in the field, hoping that will make illegal immigrants more likely to respond to questions.
It’s just the latest trouble in what’s turning into a rocky run-up to the census next year.
During a congressional hearing last week, a Democratic senator told Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves that the American Community Survey - a yearly survey the bureau mails to a small sampling of Americans - pries too deeply and is so confusing that it appeared at first to be a case of mail fraud.
Meanwhile, a group of Republican senators is trying to have the 2010 census form include a question about citizenship. They are trying to set a precedent that congressional seats be reapportioned based on a count of citizens, rather than all residents.
The census issue is roiling Hispanic and immigrant rights groups. Major organizations and broadcasters are mounting a campaign for participation, but some activists argue that Democrats and Mr. Obama haven’t done enough to earn Hispanic support for the effort.
“The only thing left for the immigrant to bargain is something they want from the immigrant, and that is that the person be counted. If that person refuses to cooperate, refuses to participate, refuses to comply, now he has a modicum of leverage,” said Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association.
The Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, is calling for a boycott specifically by illegal immigrants.
He said a count can’t be accurate with so many people living in the shadows and that counting illegal immigrants inflates numbers in places where many residents can’t vote. He said he fears those residents who are counted can’t ever get true representation.
“The truth is that counting undocumented immigrants creates what we call ghost electoral districts, and that is completely immoral,” he said.
He said Mr. Obama has moved too slowly to legalize illegal immigrants and has instead embraced tougher enforcement measures.
“We’re the ones who are seeing what is happening to the members of our churches,” he said.
Mr. Rivera and Mr. Lopez are being vehemently fought by Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), who calls a boycott “nonsensical and irresponsible.”
“What they actually are doing is emboldening the very same people that are holding up comprehensive immigration reform, the very same people who would like to see immigrants leave the country,” he said.
Mr. Vargas said the census is the third part of Hispanic leaders’ longer-term strategy.
After the immigrant rights marches and legislative battles several years ago, Hispanic political leaders have pushed legal immigrants to apply for citizenship. Last year, they broadened that effort by asking new voters and all Hispanic voters to turn out in the presidential election. Next year, they’ll try to show their numbers in the census.
“This is the most important census for the Latino community because it’s the first census in which Latinos make up the nation’s second-largest population group,” he said.
NALEO has teamed with major Spanish-language media outlets to push for broad participation. One example is the Univision television network, which will include pro-census messages in its newscasts and its regular entertainment programming.
Still, some Hispanic advocates say there’s too much fear in the immigrant community to conduct an accurate count. They’re calling for the Homeland Security Department to suspend immigration raids for part of next year.
Joseph Villela, policy advocate for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said the Census Bureau requested in 1990 and 2000 that immigration law enforcement cease. He said no such request has been made this time.
“Given that there’s no clear message from, in this case, the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau to specifically request [the Homeland Security Department] to stop these raids, then obviously folks are not going to trust any census workers,” he said.
Raul E. Cisneros, chief of the publicity office for the 2010 census, said the Census Bureau will not ask Homeland Security to suspend raids. But he said his office is making a giant effort to try to boost participation with an advertising budget of several hundred million dollars and tens of thousands of partner organizations lined up to help.
“We’re asking the public to take the few minutes to answer these very few questions, very straightforward questions,” he said.
Congress reviews the questions and has oversight over the census, but some lawmakers have bristled at the broadness of the census. Earlier this year, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, touched off controversy when she told The Washington Times’ “America’s Morning News” radio program that she plans only to fill out the number of people in her household on her 2010 census form.
Mr. Rivera and Mr. Lopez said they personally agree with her.
“We tell people, and I’m the first to declare it, I absolutely will not cooperate, nor comply, with the Census Bureau nor the federal law,” Mr. Lopez said, adding that if the bureau tries to impose penalties on him, “I am willing to suffer those consequences.”
The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey took fire from senators last week.
Sen. Roland W. Burris, Illinois Democrat, told Mr. Groves, the census director, that his former job as state attorney general gave him plenty of experience with mail fraud and that he initially thought the survey was a scam.
The American Community Survey is a long questionnaire sent each year to a small sampling of households. It’s designed to give the government a sense of demographic trends in between the decennial censuses. Mr. Burris, whose daughter received a questionnaire recently, said the whole thing was too confusing.
“Do you all really expect people to send these back?” he asked Mr. Groves.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said he received an American Community Survey last year and filled out only half of the questions.
“There’s nothing in the Constitution, in the first article, that gives the power of the census to do that,” he said, adding that he would “defend anybody” who doesn’t want to complete the long-form questionnaire.
Mr. Groves said he accepts the criticism that his bureau has not publicized the American Community Survey well enough but that fewer responses raise government costs because workers have to visit the homes to try to track down the answers.
The law says there is a penalty for not filling out the American Community Survey, but Mr. Groves said he knows of no prosecutions.