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Census Controversies and the Illegal Immigration Debate

The 2010 census is still more than five months away — with the national count scheduled for April 1 — and it has already produced three separate controversies involving Latinos and illegal immigration.

1. For the last 
several months, immigration activists and Latino advocacy groups have been discreetly lobbying the census bureau to ask 
immigration officials to suspend worksite raids long enough to carry out the 
census. The argument was that illegal immigrants — and for that matter, legal immigrants with family members who may be undocumented or who are themselves unnerved by a climate of immigrant-bashing — would be too afraid to participate in the survey. Recently, census officials announced that they would not ask the 
Department of Homeland Security for a moratorium on immigration raids. 
And with that, one government agency stood up to public pressure 
and refused to tell another one how to conduct its affairs.

2. Meanwhile, two Republican senators — David Vitter of Louisiana and Bob Bennett of Utah — want to exclude illegal immigrants from the survey 
by requiring that the census bureau, for the first time, ask people whether 
they’re in the country illegally. They’ve proposed an amendment to an appropriations 
bill that would stop funding for the 2010 census unless the changes are made. 
The current policy, in effect since the first census in 1790, allows the 
government to ask whether respondents are foreign-born, but 
not their legal status. That’s because the census is supposed to count 
all “residents,” including illegal immigrants. The senators want to change that, even if it means shortchanging states with large immigrant populations.

3. Finally, while some Latino activists are worried about illegal immigrants not participating in the census, others — including the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders and the Mexican American Political Association — are urging that all 47 million Latinos boycott the census as a way of protesting White House foot-dragging on immigration reform and what they see as the Obama administration’s heavy-handed enforcement measures (i.e., building fences, conducting worksite raids, and deporting illegal immigrants). Clearly, the activists are disappointed, but that’s no excuse for being self-destructive. After all, the redistricting process will take place in state legislatures in the months following the survey.

The request to suspend immigration raids is out of line. Not only are immigration raids a necessary and legitimate tool for the 
government to use as it tries to curb 
illegal immigration, they are also not linked to the census in any way 
whatsoever. Federal officials aren’t raiding homes. They’re 
raiding businesses in search of illegal immigrants. How would that kind of 
activity make people afraid to answer the door at home? Shouldn’t they be afraid to go to work?

Besides, the argument that immigrants won’t participate in 
the census count is just a convenient tool for those who oppose raids 
anyway and who are looking for any excuse to stop them. This latest controversy is just a smokescreen that they hope will help 
them do that. The immigration raids should continue. So should the census. Both serve important purposes don’t interfere 
with the other.

But the attempt by Sens. Vitter and Bennett to bar illegal immigrants from the census is also out of line. And it also hides a secret agenda. This is partisan politics. What concerns Republicans is that, since the 
census is used to allocate congressional seats, Democrats could 
gain seats if illegal immigrants are included.

They assume most illegal immigrants live in states controlled by Democrats. But this is also about inter-state rivalry. Neither Louisiana nor 
Utah have significant immigrant populations. The big 
winners in population growth 
caused by immigration are states like Texas, 
Arizona, and California. 
Don’t expect senators — Republican or Democrat — from those 
states to support the Vitter-Bennett amendment. States that have 
taken in more than their share of illegal immigrants should get what 
they’re due in federal resources and congressional 
representation. For that to happen, illegal immigrants have to be counted in the census.

Finally, the proposed census boycott by Latinos angry over Obama’s inattention to the immigration issue is ludicrous. Being angry is no excuse for being self-destructive. Boycotting the census is a horrible idea that would only further disenfranchise the Latino community by, among other things, shortchanging it in the redistricting process that will take place in state legislatures following the survey. If these Latino groups really want to help the people they claim to represent, they have to understand that the first step to gaining power and respect is to stand up and be counted. That means forgetting all this talk about boycotting the census and instead finding ways to encourage Latinos to participate.

What’s behind all these controversies over the census? The short answer: numbers. The census is all about numbers. And that’s the same thing the immigration debate is about. It’s not law and order, not economics, and not secure borders. It’s all about numbers.

Today, the U.S. population is 15 percent Latino. Census projections estimate that this figure will grow to 25 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by 2050. As the country becomes more Latino, there is a naturally a lot of anxiety over what that means, what’s going to change, who’s coming in, who’s being displaced, etc. And for some people, the best way to deal with a rapidly changing reality is to ignore it by deliberately overlooking whole groups of people and pretending that nothing has changed.

Good plan.

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