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Stand Up and Be Counted in 2010

October 08, 2009

The Hispanic population is traditionally undercounted in the U.S. Census, making it particularly appalling that some national Hispanic groups are calling for a boycott of the 2010 Census. Data gathered as part of this head count helps determine the distribution of federal money and the allocation of congressional seats. Non-participation would achieve nothing more than to potentially deny necessary federal funds to areas with high Hispanic populations. Is this what communities need in the midst of a recession?

The chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, Reverend Miguel Rivera, has called on all undocumented immigrants to boycott the census and set a November 1 deadline for immigration reform to be passed. Without passage, he’ll expand his boycott message to all Hispanics. The Mexican American Political Association is passing out fliers with a similar message: “No to the census. Before you enumerate us you must legalize us.”

The logic in their arguments is filled with gaping holes. By participating in the census, Hispanics, both documented and undocumented, demonstrate their increasing numbers in the United States, and as a result, the importance for political leaders to act on Hispanic concerns. Immigration reform (the reason for the boycott call) is not the top priority, but it is near the top of the list and it must be passed. Without it, the United States will continue with an 11-million-strong shadow population that cannot reach its full potential to contribute to the U.S. economy. But the way to pass reform is by demonstrating Hispanics’ political clout—that is what gets ears in Washington to perk up.

Thankfully, the Census Bureau is focused on how to minimize a Hispanic undercount in 2010. Some estimates report an undercount of 1.3 million Hispanics in 2000—although census officials suggest that number was closer to 250,000. To avoid a repeat performance, the Bureau plans to spend $9 million more (a total of $28 million) than it did in 2000 on advertising in Hispanic media. Its media campaign includes collaboration with Telemundo’s Más Sabe el Diablo (The Devil Knows Best) telenovela in which an actress works as a Census Bureau recruiter. It’s also conducting Spanish-language community outreach across the country, among other initiatives.

Officials have also looked at what can be done to prevent language barriers, skepticism toward government, and high rates of mobility—all factors in the large Hispanic undercount—from getting in the way of a more accurate count in 2010. For the first time, the Census Bureau has printed bilingual questionnaires, 15 million in total, and plans to distribute them to areas identified as having a large concentration of Spanish speakers. To increase overall responsiveness, the census has also moved to short-form only questionnaires. Bureau officials also hope to minimize fraud by spreading word that information will not be collected through the Internet and devoting significant resources to shutting down sites that attempt to illegally gather personal information.

If things go smoothly, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that the 2010 Census will report a Hispanic population totaling 49.7 million people, or 17 percent of the U.S. population—up from the 46.9 million as of July 2008.

But, unsurprisingly, some in Congress are trying to play politics with the census. Recent legislation introduced by Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah) may serve to perpetuate long-standing rumors in the Hispanic community that the census is a tool to find undocumented immigrants. Bennett’s legislation would add a question to census forms requiring that respondents identify whether they are legally in the United States. While there’s no chance that it will be incorporated into the 2010 forms—most are already printed—his bill and any similar efforts can only serve to potentially scare off respondents. But the census is not about a person’s status in the country. Instead, as Census Bureau Director Robert Groves noted at a recent press briefing: “[T]he census…should count everyone living in the country.”

With Hispanic Heritage Month wrapping up next week, it’s time to not only celebrate Hispanics but also recognize that this population is a true engine for U.S. economic growth. In 2008, Hispanics had a collective purchasing power that surged to $870 billion, and the Economic Report of the President (2005) estimates that the average immigrant’s lifetime tax payments exceed the cost of services he or she will use by $88,000.

These contributions reinforce the fact that Hispanics deserve to be counted and to have their just access to population-apportioned funding. Now is the time to move beyond rhetoric and divisions and work to ensure a fair count in 2010.

Jason Marczak is Director of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, where he leads the organizations’ Hispanic integration efforts.