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Census Boycott Divides Immigrants

El Planeta, News Report, Ignacio Laguarda, Translated by Elena Shore Posted: Sep 13, 2009

Miguel Rivera is a polarizing figure. To some he is a brave and resourceful fighter for undocumented immigrants. To others he is a misguided figure who could cause the loss of billions of federal dollars to Latino neighborhoods that need it most.

His idea is simple: boycott the 2010 Census. The goal is to put enough pressure on Congress to pass immigration reform by April 1, 2010, the deadline to turn in census forms.

The strategy is to focus on states where a census boycott could have the greatest effect, namely where a state could lose a seat in the House of Representatives if a certain number of people refuse to be counted in the census.

Rivera believes the states most vulnerable to losing a seat are Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Arizona and South Carolina.

"Were focusing on these states so the governors will immediately see the negative impact a census boycott could have. We want those governors to unite in a collective voice calling on Congress to enact immigration reform," Rivera said.

Every 10 years, a census is conducted throughout the country to count the number of people living in all neighborhoods, cities and states. These numbers are used to decide how to allocate the more than $400 billion annually that the federal government gives to local and state governments.

For years, Latino groups have worked with the undocumented community to encourage them to participate in the census and assure them that their responses would not be reviewed by other agencies like the FBI or ICE. Although the Census Bureau is part of the federal government, the census does not ask about citizenship status.

These years of work by groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) could be erased in less than a year if Riveras campaign succeeds. Rivera is not only interested in achieving immigration reform; he is also clearly anti-census. "[We want to educate the undocumented] so they understand that by participating in the census, first of all, they dont get any benefits because theyre undocumented, and secondly what it does is expose them so that census takers and then opportunistic political interests can use their information," Rivera said.

Brent Wilkes, executive director of LULAC, calls Riveras position insulting to groups that have long promoted the census.

"We've been [supporting the census] for 40 years. Why didnt he warn us or consult us? Its very insulting," said Wilkes.

Rivera, a minister and president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders (CONLAMIC), a group he says represents more than 20,000 churches in 34 states, says the boycott is a response to the lack of dialogue by the administration of President Barack Obama, who had said he would address immigration reform in his first 100 days in office.

"The decision to boycott the census is simply because were tired of seeing the abuse of our undocumented people, seeing how Congress continues to play with peoples dignity, seeing a president who says, 'the first hundred days,' and then 'the first year,' and theres still nothing concrete, Rivera said. "There is no other way to say, Before being counted, we need to be legalized.

This is the slogan of the boycott and a message repeated by Rivera and his followers. One of them is Fausto Da Rocha, director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston and host of a radio program that recently featured Rivera as a guest.

"I think we have a lot of support in the Brazilian community and were going to work with Brazilian religious leaders to get out the message," said Da Rocha.

"Depending on the results of the census, Massachusetts could lose a congressional seat. What does that mean? Less political power for the Democratic Party and less money for the state. All of the states are going to pay a price for a decade of not defending the rights of immigrants."

Rivera says that so far, 2.5 million people have pledged not to fill out the census form. According to census data, each person who fills out a form represents an average of $1,000 a year for their community. If Rivera's calculations are correct, the boycott could result in a loss of $25 billion across the country over the next decade.

While Rivera and Fausto Da Rocha cite these figures with pride, Eva Millona, director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), believes a boycott would harm the immigrant community.

Reporting less numbers than we have doesnt do us any favors, said Millona. This isnt the way to achieve immigration reform.

Stephen Buckner, a spokesperson for the census, agrees with Millona. "Were disappointed that an organization is encouraging people not to participate in the 2010 census," said Buckner. "The census is necessary in order to distribute money and political representation to communities."

Wilkes has a harsher critique of Rivera, calling his boycott "insane" and "stupid." "The people Rivera wants to attack are the people on the far right who dont want immigration reform and dont want undocumented Latinos to be counted in the census either," said Wilkes. "So Rivera is giving them two gifts. Opponents of immigration reform dont mind if Latinos arent counted by the census.

Wilkes, who participated in a debate with Rivera, questions his power, the legitimacy of CONLAMIC, and his claim that he has 2.5 million supporters.

"It's very suspicious that he is the only spokesman for CONLAMIC," said Wilkes. "I've never met other members. I have never seen any of their events. From what I understand, the boycott is a crusade by one person.

For Rivera, the greatest challenge in the days before the census is to convince millions of undocumented immigrants not to participate, while major Latino organizations like LULAC, NALEO, the National Council of La Raza and radio and television networks like Telemundo and Univision -- not to mention the federal government -- are spreading the opposite message. What Rivera has managed to do, however, is to put everyone on alert. Millona, the director of MIRA, for example, is organizing an October news conference announcing an education campaign about the census.

"We're doing everything we can to educate people and make sure we have the correct number of people living in our state and no less," she said.

Related Articles:

A Dangerous Boycott

Ethnic Media to Play Critical Role in 2010 Census

Latino Church Leaders Split on Census Boycott

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