Colorado Latino leaders work to derail proposed census boycott

As a proposed national Latino census boycott receives increased media attention, many Latino and immigrant organizations in Colorado say they’re thankful the movement hasn’t taken hold so far in the Centennial State.

Denver pro-immigration rally 2006 (CC photo Staver: Flickr)

Denver pro-immigration rally 2006 (Staver: Flickr)

“We’re hoping it doesn’t become a huge issue here,” said Chandra Russo, spokeswoman for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “Latinos gain strength in numbers,” she said. “If you diminish the numbers by boycotting the census, you diminish the influence and power of Latinos … It’s uninformed people that are proposing something of this nature. They’re not aware of the damage they might do.”

Announced in April, the census boycott is the brainchild of Reverend Miguel Rivera, head of the conservative evangelical National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, known as CONLAMIC. Rivera said the boycott is intended to pressure lawmakers in Washington to finally begin seriously addressing immigration reform, an issue many say has effectively been subsumed this year by the ugly anti-immigrant debate over health-care reform.

Suspicions abound

Opponents of the boycott, however, see the move as shortsighted and worry that taking millions of Latino citizens and immigrants — documented and undocumented — out of the count could diminish growing Latino influence in the nation. More than that, they say, refusing to be counted plays into the hands of anti-immigrant pundits like conservative Colorado Springs blogger Michelle Malkin, who has argued that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be counted in the census. Malkin sees an ACORN-Homeland Security-Democratic Party redistricting plot:

Obama’s census partners are using the process to pressure homeland security agents to halt interior enforcement efforts and workplace raids so that illegal alien cooperation with the national survey is maximized. Inclusion of the massive illegal alien population has resulted in a radical redrawing of the electoral map.

So far, the Colorado Latino evangelical community doesn’t appear to be supporting the boycott, according to Jennifer Piper, interfaith organizing director for immigrant rights at the American Friends Service Committee. She explained that many of the evangelical ministers she works with generally don’t take politics to the pulpit. They are particularly avoiding this lighting-rod issue, she said.

But others in the Latino and immigration communities see a need to address the matter head on. Like Malkin, they see a plot, but one designed to confuse Latinos. They point to an erroneous email that circulated last week encouraging the boycott:

“Thousands of dollars goes to counties for each family counted, that money does not go to communitties and schools [sic],” the email spuriously alleged. “Part of that money goes to the police departments and they do immigration agent jobs [sic].”

In part because anti-immigration groups have said they would love to see a boycott, some worry that emails like this one could be a sign that anti-immigration groups are masquerading as immigration supporters, nefariously encouraging a boycott for their own ends. There is evidence to support such fears.

The email, sent from immigrationreformproamerica@gmail.com, comes from an address that does not appear to belong to any formal organization. An email sent to the address inquiring about its organizational affiliation was not returned.

ProAmerica is more often a term used by those in the anti-immigration movement. Rallies against illegal immigration are sometimes called ProAmerica rallies. Dallas lawyer David Marlett recently set up a ProAmerica website that briefly allowed companies to publicize a pledge not to hire undocumented workers.

census boycott

The debate goes national

In press releases and interviews, father of the boycott Miguel Rivera argues the move would apply high-publicity pressure where it’s needed, since those charged with immigration reform are the same people who benefit from higher census numbers: members of Congress. Both federal funding and a state’s number of congressional seats, he points out, are based on census data. He also alleges that law enforcement officials can and do use census data to crack down on illegal immigrants, an allegation both the U.S. Census and many Latino activists say is false.

Rivera has won several high-profile organizers to his side, including Nativo Lopez of the Mexican American Political Association in Los Angeles and Fausto da Rocha, executive director of the Allston, Mass.-based Brazilian Immigrant Center.

Many national Latino and immigrant organizations still disagree with Rivera’s approach. Both the National Council of La Raza and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials have come out against the strategy, for example.

Colorado opposes the boycott

The Colorado Latino Forum and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) oppose the boycott.

Chandra Russo at CIRC worried that a boycott would deny the census accurate data needed to determine congressional representation and disperse federal dollars in districts where Latinos live.

“A boycott would be very detrimental to the Latino population of the United States, whether they’re documented or undocumented,” agreed Polly Baca, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum. Strength comes in numbers, she repeated, and those numbers have to be made official.

Acknowledging immigrants’ concerns over handing information to the government, Russo underlined that census data is confidential. She said that many immigration advocates and immigrants are working with the census to ensure that information can’t be used to target communities with illegal immigrants.

The Bureau weighs in

The U.S. Census Bureau has been working to make sure Latinos agree to be counted in 2010. Experts estimate that fears over misuse of census data resulted in a 2000 miscount. They say the census that year underestimated the nation’s Latino population by as much as 3 percent or roughly 1 million people.

Census officials have developed new strategies to avoid a repeat of any such miscalculation, introducing bilingual forms, for example, as well as partnerships with Latino leaders, public service announcements on Spanish-language television, information packets for Latino community leaders and a toll-free bilingual census hot line.

Census officials have also partnered with Spanish-language television station Telemundo. This month, a character on one of Telemundo’s popular telenovelas, “Mas Sabe El Diablo,” will apply for a job as a census worker. The station, which is not being paid by the U.S. Census Bureau, says it hopes to use a familiar character to fight census misconceptions.

Recently, CNN conservative commentator Lou Dobbs criticized the partnership as an example of subliminal government messaging.

One of the 2000 strategies will not be repeated: the U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, has said it will not attempt to stop immigration raids during the 2010 count.

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Katie Redding

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