It is the largest peacetime mobilization in the United States: the decennial count of the nation’s population.
The Census is used to apportion House seats and distribute nearly $450 billion in federal dollars. And it misses millions of Latinos and other people of color. That means big money losses.
Ironically, the Census for the first time acknowledged an overcount in 2000, largely due to duplicate counts of more affluent non-Hispanic whites with multiple residences. Overall, 4.5 million were missed, mostly African Americans and Latinos. In counting the Latino population this time around, the Census and Latino community leaders want things to be different.
Next year’s count is being called by the Census Bureau its first Latino Census. Thousands of bilingual (English/Spanish) forms will be mailed out to residences in communities with large Latino populations – about 13 million households.
“We have an extensive and integrated campaign with many partners in the Latino community,” says Raúl Cisneros, chief of the Census 2010 publicity office. “We are making every effort to make sure everyone participates. While in the past most households received a short-form questionnaire and some received a long form, next year’s Census will be a short-form questionnaire, asking only name, sex, age, date of birth, race, ethnicity, relationship and housing. The more detailed questions are now part of the American Community Survey, which is sent to a percentage of the population on a rotating basis. The idea, Census officials say, is to make the process as quick and simple as possible to ensure as accurate an account as possible.
“For every 1% who do not fill out the questionnaire, we have to spend $80 million to $90 million to go out and talk to them,” says Cisneros.
For Latinos in particular, community leaders say this census is extremely important not just because the government wants to know how many people live in the country.
Simply put, says Juan Andrade of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, it’s a matter of money. “For every million people not counted, that represents a loss of $10 billion.”
Several Latino groups are “partners” with the U.S. Census for the 2010 census, including the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and their Ya Es Hora, Hágase Contar en el Censo 2010 (It’s Time to Be Counted in the 2010 Census) bilingual publicity campaign.
“Ensuring our nation’s second largest population group is fully counted is critical to recognizing our nation’s diversity and to building future political strength,” said NALEO executive director Arturo Vargas. “Latinos are the nation’s second largest and fastest-growing population group, and the 2010 Census cannot be successful without the full participation of every single Latino resident.”
While that campaign is underway, the big publicity push will come early next year on all fronts, says Fernando Fernández, of the advertising firm D Expósito & Partners in New York, one of the agencies handling publicity aimed at the Hispanic community.
“We’re going to be television, radio, print. An all-out effort to tell the community how important it is to participate in the census. Making sure we have as many Latinos counted as possible is a mission for us.”
The campaign is called Para Progresar, Lo Tenemos que Enviar (To Get Ahead we Have to Send it In).
“The ones that speak English the least are the ones who need to know the most about the importance of the census,” says Fernández, who adds the campaign will have different music styles and messages to appeal to the variety of groups within the Latino community.
The Census Bureau has taken pains to ensure respondents that any information gathered is only for the agency’s use. “We take confidentiality very seriously. We cannot share this information with anyone,” says the bureau’s Cisneros.
Census efforts at counting the population is already made difficult by the soft economy, particularly in areas hit hard by foreclosures. Census Director Robert Groves says the agency expects some of the questionnaires to be mailed out to empty homes in areas hard-hit by the housing crisis, including Arizona, Florida, California and Nevada – coincidentally where large numbers of Latinos reside.
Groves adds the agency is also aware of the extra effort it will have to take to count former homeowners now living with friends or relatives, and to count those who lost their homes and are now newly homeless or living is less traditional housing, such as RVs. Surpassing or even matching the mail-back response of 67 percent in 2000 may be difficult this time around, he says.
“I think this census is a harder job for us,” Groves recently told reporters in Los Angeles. The cost of undertaking a nationwide count is projected to be $14.7 billion, more than double that of 2000. The agency has earmarked several hundred million dollars for outreach to Latinos and other minorities, but many recession-weary local communities are dealing with a lack of funding for the census. California, for instance, will spend a fraction of what it did in 2000 for census outreach -- $2 million compared to almost $25 million.
A study by the Washington-based Pew Charitable Trusts finds that many cities where residents are considered at “high risk” of being missed in the Census count are struggling with a lack of funds.
The Pew study found that of the 11 major cities that had undercounts of residents in 2000, only five – Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix – had allocated public funds to census outreach, and even then at “sharply lower” levels than in 2000. Los Angeles, for example, has allocated just $770,738, half of what it had in 2000. The report mentions that Chicago, which missed more than 30,000 residents in 2000 and had spent more than $1 million in city funds ten years ago, has allocated nothing this year.
But a real big fly in the ointment is the issue of immigration and what activists say is the decidedly anti-immigrant atmosphere that has of late griped the political scene in the nation’s capital.
Republican senators David Vitter of Louisiana and Robert Bennett of Utah sponsored legislation that would require the Census to include a question about a person’s citizenship status.
Vitter says the way the Census done now, particularly the apportionment of congressional seats, it shouldn’t include people who aren’t citizens and can’t vote.
“If the current plan goes through, the inclusion of non-citizens toward apportionment will artificially increase the population count in certain states and will lately result in the loss of congressional seats in other states,” he said. “This is a real concern for Americans across the country who want to see apportionment fairly applied.”
Latino legislators call the proposal a political ploy masquerading as an attack on the community.
“Since the very first census count in 1790, we have included citizens and non-citizens alike, and presidents from both parties have repeatedly upheld the importance of counting each and every person living in the United States,” says Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) “The Census,” adds Rep. Charlie González (D-Texas) “is too important to be use as a political football. This amendment would undermine the results of the entire Census and could even prevent the Department of Commerce from meeting its deadlines for completing the process.”
In recent congressional testimony, Census Director Robert Groves said Congress had time to review the questionnaire well in advance and said nothing. Any changes now would throw everything into disarray and add unnecessary costs to the process, he told legislators.
“I can say with absolute confidence, that if we add a question to the census questionnaire at this point, we will not deliver the reapportionment counts in 2010 in time (as required by law), and we will not provide the date for redistricting.”
This is what happens, some legislators say, when a contentious issue such as immigration is used by opponents to foment fear for purely political purposes.
“This issue is not about immigration reform, it’s about ensuring that the census has an accurate account,” says Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Scare tactics will only serve to skew the census data and drive more people not to participate. The census is mandated by the Constitution and we cannot allow lawmakers to use divisive tactic to scare people into not participating. It is too important and there is too much at stake.”
Historians put out that while the word “citizen” is mentioned in other parts of the Constitution, it was purposely left out by the constitutional framers mandating a count of the entire population.
NHLI’s Andrade says it is hate mongering elevated by the 2001 terrorist attacks, even though it is well-known that none of the 9/11 attackers was Latino or entered the country through the southern border. “We are equating illegal immigrants with terrorism and exploiting anti-immigrant sentiments.”
Under federal law, Congress has to review any changes/additions to census questions at least three years in advance of a census.
“This is nothing more than a cynical ploy to further divide the country and to pander to the voices of intolerance,” says Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives.
“Of course this doesn’t take into consideration that 400 million forms have already been mailed out. The whole thing would have to get started all over again and there would be little chance to reach that the mandated deadline to turn in the census results to the president,” says Gloria Montaño Greene, director of the Washington office of NALEO.
USHLI’s Andrade adds that the consequences of this type of amendment would be devastating to the Latino community. “Already we’re dealing with many Latino residents who are reluctant to fill out the form for fear that information will be turned over to the authorities. That attitude is around even with the Census assuring the community it won’t use the information against them and they still don’t fill it out. Imagine if this amendment.”
You would be “crazy” to fill out the census form if there’s an immigration question included, says Brent Wilkes, Washington director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “There then would be no guarantees that it wouldn’t be used as an enforcement tool.” Wilkes says he doesn’t understand why some legislators would be supporting such an effort.
“They’re shooting themselves in the foot. They’re saying, sure, okay, take away seats from my state, don’t count the people in my state, don’t tell me where they are, and take away any money we would get. The undercount already is a problem and here we have people conspiring for an even greater undercount. It’s insane.”
Just before this issue went to press, Vitter’s amendment was voted down. But further complicating matters is a call for a boycott by the Rev. Miguel Rivera of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders.
“If Congress is interested in having our (the Latino community), then they’re going to have to give us immigration reform. What happens now is they ask the community to come out of the shadows and be counted and then immigrants go back (into the shadows) and nothing happens,” says Rivera. Joining in the boycott effort is the California-based Mexican American Political Association and the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. They want all immigrants to boycott the census until comprehensive immigration reform passes.
“If we cannot count on the government, why are we going to get counted?” says MAPA and Hermandad president Nativo López.
Latino leaders say a call for a boycott is ridiculous.
“You know what? Miguel Rivera is a liar and somebody who is hurting the community with this,” said Wilkes. “His idea is absurd and playing into the hands of the anti-immigrant community. And he’s making up stuff about who he really represents. He is a coalition of one. A one-man show out for himself... And the mainstream press takes (the call for a boycott) seriously because they don’t know he is not really representing us. They don’t investigate and look into who he really is and what he’s really representing.”
MAPA’s López has not been without controversy, with allegations of voter fraud as reported by the Orange County Register. A search of Rivera’s group on GuideStar.org, which tracks non-profit organizations and their finances, turned up nothing.
“These are the people who are supposed to be representing the Latino community? Who are supposed to be taken seriously with this boycott? It’s very unfortunate,” says LULAC’s Wilkes.
Further exacerbating the problem is the federal government’s decision on whether or not to halt immigration raids during next year’s census count. The U.S. Commerce Department has said it would not seek a halt to the raids as it did in the 2000 census.
“Our job is to count every resident once, and in the right place, and that’s what we do,” said Commerce spokesperson Nick Kimball. “All the information the Census Bureau collects is protected by law and will not be shared with any other agency. Neither the Commerce Department nor the Census Bureau will ask DHS to refrain from exercising their lawful authority.” In 2000, immigration officials informally agreed to stop any raids during the census count. The department’s current decision is a departure not only from its stance in 2000, but also two years ago, when the department asked the Department of Homeland Security to stop raids until after the 2010 census. That request was rejected by the then-Bush administration.
Even when the raids were suspended, it is estimated that Latinos were undercounted by almost 3% in 2000.
“Imagine what the undercount would be with the raids continuing this year and with something like the Vitter amendment, says NHLI’s Andrade. “It would be disastrous. We’re calculating a loss of $100 billion over ten years. It’s almost like they want to completely discount us. If we’re not included in the count, no one knows we’re here, and that deprives us not only of federal dollars for our community, but of representation in the legislature. This is specifically being orchestrated against us. But that’s why we can’t afford to withdraw from the process.” Several current members of Congress, including Hispanic Caucus chair Velázquez and other legislators of color were elected are reapportionment specifically created so-called “majority-minority” districts.
Andrade adds he is disappointed with the relative silence of some Democratic members of Congress who promised greater attention to the Latino community once Democrats gained a majority in Congress.
“We have people who are scared of their shadows. It takes more than a “D” by your name to be a Democrat,” adding his frustration is also aimed at the White House.
“It’s open season on Latinos and we’re not getting the level of leadership coming out of them on some of these issues like the immigration raids during the census or amendments that seek to leave some many of us out. Where is the White House on all that? It is very disillusioning to see this. We want and deserve stronger leadership, and we have to become a big enough risk for these politicians so that they can’t ignore us even if they wanted to. We have to get to the point where we can tell them, hey, we’re not going to be committed to keeping people in office if they aren’t going to work with us and to our benefit. That’s why it’s so important to ensure we are ALL counted in the census.”
Patricia Guadalupe is a Washington, DC-Based writer and editor of Hispanic Link.