The latest effort to push illegal immigrants further into the shadows of civic life comes from an unexpected quarter. Not from those who would gladly deport every single person residing in this country without permission, but from advocates who profess to have their best interest at heart. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders is urging illegal immigrants not to participate in the 2010 census. The group's supposed logic? That the statistical invisibility of 11 million to 12 million people will be a powerful lever to move legislators and the Obama administration to act with urgency and create a pathway to citizenship.
This misguided advice could have come from the Minuteman Project. Because an undercount means that the very places where illegal immigrants reside and use services, those states and counties already in desperate financial straits will be shortchanged of federal funding that would help all residents. Are these church leaders also urging illegal immigrants to not send their children to school? To avoid hospitals? To forgo driving on highways? An undercount means diminished funding for those public necessities and many others. Furthermore, census data determine voting districts. Are these advocates calling for fewer elected officials who might actually negotiate a pathway to citizenship?
In a report on undercounting in the 2000 census, the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers calculated that states loses more than $3,000 per uncounted resident. California, for example, is already out hundreds of millions of dollars because of an undercount in the 2000 census of an estimated 500,000 people. Los Angeles, Alameda, San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego counties will lose the bulk of that money, with L.A. losing more than $600 million over 10 years.
Unfortunately, this boycott movement seems to be gaining momentum; it dovetails with an existing fear of government detection. But anyone who boycotts the census has a poor understanding of U.S. history. Political power in this country is tethered to visibility. It is not a coincidence that in the past, the voiceless -- Native Americans on reservations, enslaved African Americans -- were purposely not counted in the census. (Actually, for taxation and representation purposes, the latter were counted as three-fifths of a person.)
There is no logical reason to fear participation. By law, all personal census information is sealed for 72 years, and no one who fills out a form is going to be deported as a result. With nothing to gain but much to lose, boycotting the census would be a strange tactic for people who have marched by the millions, revealing their numbers for the world to see. Whatever happened to "Today we march, tomorrow we vote"?