Census concern: Immigrants may avoid the count
By Daniel Gonzlez
The Arizona Republic (Phoenix), April 13, 2009
With the 2010 census less than a year away, officials have launched a campaign to build trust with undocumented immigrants amid growing concern that millions of people in the country illegally will be afraid to be counted.
At the same time, some immigrant advocates are threatening to tell undocumented immigrants to boycott the census in retaliation for immigration crackdowns, a move that would deny recession-starved cities and towns much-needed federal tax dollars, which are allocated based on population.
The emerging political battle over the census is of particular concern in Arizona, where the huge undocumented population and an ongoing high-profile crackdown have resulted in the arrest and deportation of tens of thousands of illegal immigrants.
The state could lose millions of dollars in federal funding for roads, schools, redevelopment and other projects if large numbers of people are overlooked, said Vianey Celestino, an Arizona spokeswoman for the U.S. Census Bureau.
The census is also used to redraw congressional districts every 10 years. If the census accurately reflects a state's growing population, it could gain seats.
'We are trying to count everyone,' Celestino said.
During the 2000 census, 63 percent of the state's residents returned forms. The national response rate was 67 percent, according to census officials.
Census officials estimate that nearly 75,000 Arizona residents were overlooked in 2000, including about 18,750 people in Phoenix, said Tammy Perkins, an official in the Phoenix City Manager's Office.
A similar undercount in 2010 would cost Phoenix $75 million in revenue over 10 years, Perkins said.
President Barack Obama has been accused of trying to politicize the decennial head count in favor of Democrats. Last week he nominated University of Michigan sociology professor and statistical sampling expert Robert Groves to run the Census Bureau, drawing criticism from Republicans who fear Obama wants to use sampling in addition to the person-by-person tally to calculate immigrants, minorities and other hard-to-count groups that tend to favor Democrats.
Census officials recently began contacting churches, schools and community organizations to help deliver the message that the census has nothing to do with immigration status.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, for example, plans to ask priests of Spanish-speaking congregations to urge parishioners to participate, said Hispanic Ministry Director Jos Robles.
The U.S. Constitution mandates that, every 10 years, the government count everyone who lives in the U.S. The Census Bureau does not care about immigration status and does not share the information it collects with enforcement agencies, Celestino said.
Beginning in mid-March, the Census Bureau will send questionnaires to every residence in the country. The forms will ask for the names, birth dates and other information of each person living at each residence. The forms do not ask about immigration status. If questionnaires are not returned by the end of April, Census workers will visit each residence up to six times to try to get a response.
Some community leaders are worried that immigrants in the country illegally will be afraid to answer the door if they confuse Census officials wearing federal badges with immigration agents. But officials said they need not worry about anyone showing up if they mail back the census forms.
'What we want to emphasize is increasing the response rate. That is what our energies are focused on,' said Pamela Lucero, the Denver regional partnership coordinator for the Census Bureau. 'Our message is: 'Send it back.' '
Even without stepped-up immigration enforcement, immigrants already were among the most difficult groups to count because of language barriers and cultural fears of the government.
'I know that people are afraid of the different raids we are having in the state, especially in Maricopa County, but we can assure them that this information (will be) perfectly safe,' Celestino said.
There are about 500,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona, or about 9 percent of the population, the highest share of any state in the nation, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, a research group in Washington, D.C.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona deported 73,000 illegal immigrants during the last fiscal year, up 64 percent compared with the previous year, which officials largely attributed to more state and local police departments enforcing federal immigration laws, including the controversial neighborhood sweeps and work-site raids conducted by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
In response to the immigration enforcement, some immigrant advocates in Phoenix and other parts of the country are threatening to tell undocumented immigrants to boycott the census.
'This (idea) has been tossed around all over America,' said Alfredo Gutierrez, an immigrant advocate in Phoenix who has a daily radio program on La Campesina, a Spanish radio station (88.3 FM). 'This is one time they want to count the Mexicans. They didn't want to before, but they do now. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy and irony in that.'
Michael Nowakowski, a Phoenix city councilman who chairs the city's census committee, said a census boycott is a bad idea because it would reduce federal assistance for education and other programs that benefit immigrants and their children.
'I believe it would have a huge impact, but the huge impact would be on the immigrant community,' he said.
Arpaio said he has no intention of backing off from his immigration crackdown because of the census.
'Do you really think I am going to stop enforcing the law because of the census? We are going to continue enforcing all the laws including the immigration laws. I don't care about the census,' Arpaio said.
Ariz. officials concerned about accurate census
The Associated Press, April 13, 2009