WASHINGTON — California Democratic Rep. Joe Baca wants to count all Latinos in the 2010 census, including millions of noncitizens. Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter wants only legal citizens included in the official count.
The Rev. Miguel Rivera, who heads the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, wants illegal Latino immigrants to boycott the census as a way to show their displeasure with Congress' refusal to overhaul national immigration laws.
His motto: "No legalization, no enumeration."
Some states with large Latino populations have a lot to lose. Other states could come out ahead if Latinos aren't counted or decide to boycott.
California could lose five of its 53 seats in the House of Representatives if noncitizens weren't counted, according to a study by Andrew Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York. New York could lose two of its 29 House seats, and Illinois could lose one of its 19. Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas each could gain a seat if noncitizens weren't counted.
The number of Latinos living in the United States is approaching 50 million.
Rivera said a boycott was a good idea because the census would be important to the Democrats who control Washington as they looked ahead to using census numbers for reapportionment. With minorities more likely to vote Democratic, he said, the party's leaders will want to make sure they have strong minority participation to strengthen their hand when new lines for congressional districts are drawn.
"We understand the political benefits of having a strong count," Rivera said.
Citizenship has never been a requirement for the census, dating to the first census in 1790, when each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person, said Clara Rodriguez, a sociology professor and census expert at Fordham University in New York.
"Slaves were not citizens," she said. "They did not become citizens until after the Civil War."
In the days of the Homestead Act, she said, there was no concern about the status of people who settled in Oklahoma and elsewhere because the nation was being flooded with immigrants.
"I don't think that anybody was asking whether they were citizens," she said.
The Constitution requires that the "whole number of persons" be counted. Some politicians differ, however, on how that should be interpreted.
The issue has been receiving plenty of attention on Capitol Hill.
In the Senate, Vitter teamed up with Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett to introduce legislation that would require the census to ask people whether they're citizens. Vitter and Bennett suggested freezing funds for the Census Bureau if it won't change its forms to include a question about the citizenship status of all respondents.
The senators wanted then to use the census information for a reapportionment system that would be based only on the number of citizens. While the legislation caused an initial stir, the Senate voted last week to cut off debate, defeating it at least temporarily.
In the House, Baca responded by introducing the Every Person Counts Act, which wouldn't allow anyone to be excluded from the census based on immigration or citizenship status. He said the Vitter-Bennett amendment "clearly violates the spirit of the Constitution."
Rivera's group represents more 20,000 churches in 34 states, including 250 in California, many of them in the Los Angeles and Oakland areas. While the proposed boycott is national in scope, Rivera said the Washington, D.C.-based group wanted to focus its energy in six states: Arizona, California, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
He said the decision to pursue a boycott was approved by a majority vote of the group's 314 board members after they concluded that President Barack Obama and Congress were moving too slowly on immigration changes.
Rivera called it "a radical decision." However, he added: "We have marched with our people. We have organized voter registration drives in our areas. So we have a track record that we can say proudly we have a moral standing why we're calling for a boycott to the census unless comprehensive immigration reform is accomplished."
Many critics are sympathetic with Rivera's goals but say that a boycott is misguided and drastic .
"I don't think it's a good idea," Rodriguez said. "I think that they're shooting themselves in the foot. I think if people are here, they should be counted. Whether they're here in an undocumented fashion or not, you're here. And most of these people have to work and pay taxes."
Rivera said he was all too familiar with the argument that Latinos would only hurt themselves, because federal funds are tied to census numbers, but that participating in the past hasn't helped.
"The worst streets are always in our barrios," he said. "The worst-performing schools are always in our barrios."
Rodriguez said an organized boycott would just complicate the work of the federal officials who fretted about undercounts every 10 years when the census was conducted. In the past, she said, individuals have decided whether to participate on their own.
"The census has had a very hard time in the past getting people to cooperate, for a variety of reasons," Rodriguez said. "Some people don't want to be bothered. Some people don't want government interference. Some people don't want to fill out all those forms. They don't think the government should know all that. And some people don't want the government to know that they're here."
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