Common Sense and Immigration Reform: Uniting Behind an Accurate Census

This week's installment from our guest blogger, Robert Gittelson, discusses why the boycott of the 2010 census, planned by some groups, is extremely problematic.

In the ongoing push to achieve a fair and just Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill in our current 111th legislative session, there still remains a significant amount of heavy lifting to be done. In particular, there remains some difficult coalition building to be finalized, in order to get this bill passed. Most observers assume that the most difficult partnership to forge will be between the Democrats and Republicans. That is probably true, but it truly is an extreme oversimplification.

There remain several parties that need to be brought together to cement a firm foundation to the final CIR coalition. The most prominent of these would in fact be to bring the Republicans, and more specifically the moderate Republicans, into the predominantly Democratic fold. However, even within that meeting of the minds, one has to consider the issues of business versus labor, immigrant visas versus guest workers, and oversight commissions versus free markets. Of course, this assumes that those parties can get beyond the whole “amnesty/earned legalization” conundrum.

This being said, even within the framework of the pro-CIR coalition, there remain several rifts that need to be repaired. This article will discuss just one of these issues, and it is a tricky one. Within the pro-CIR faction, there is a movement that has largely been started from within the faith based community by a seemingly “radical” proponent of CIR named Miguel Rivera. Mr. Rivera has called for the Latino community to boycott the 2010 census, until and unless CIR is passed, giving a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. Make no mistake, some community based groups that advocate for this boycott, such as the Mexican American Political Association, the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, the General Brotherhood of Workers, and the Southern California Immigration Coalition, have a loud and strong voice in this country, and are using their power to promote this cause.

However, most of the pro-CIR advocates disagree with Mr. Rivera’s plan, because they realize that the ends do not justify the means, particularly when the people and communities that will be most adversely affected by his plan are the very communities that his scheme purports to uplift. Therefore, CIR advocates want to clarify that Mr. Rivera’s boycott, while presumably well intentioned, is the wrong idea, and certainly at the wrong time.

A broad based coalition of community based organizations will host a press conference to announce their position about the on-going work by the U.S. Census Bureau in predominantly immigrant communities. “As leaders in the immigrant community we have an obligation to work in order to serve the best interest of our respective constituencies”, stated Julio Marroquin, a coalition member, and one of the convening organizations.

“We are well aware the President remains committed to having Congress deal with comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office”, added Raul Murillo, the L.A. President of the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, and another coalition member. “However, we believe we must enlarge our public support of the President. Making his promise a reality as soon as may be possible does not mean calling for sterile census boycotts which in the long run will only hurt those we are all trying to support in their already long quest to make sure the Congress reforms our broken immigration laws”, concluded Murillo, in a press advisory announcing the upcoming press conference.

The press conference will be held on Thursday, 9/17/09, at 11:00 am, at the U.S. Census Bureau, Los Angeles Regional Office, 15350 Sherman Way, Van Nuys, CA  91406-4224. From New America Media:

“Miguel Rivera is a polarizing figure. To some he is a brave and resourceful fighter for undocumented immigrants. To others he is a misguided figure who could cause the loss of billions of federal dollars to Latino neighborhoods that need it most. His idea is simple: boycott the 2010 Census. The goal is to put enough pressure on Congress to pass immigration reform by April 1, 2010, the deadline to turn in census forms.

Every 10 years, a census is conducted throughout the country to count the number of people living in all neighborhoods, cities and states. These numbers are used to decide how to allocate the more than $400 billion annually that the federal government gives to local and state governments. For years, Latino groups have worked with the undocumented community to encourage them to participate in the census and assure them that their responses would not be reviewed by other agencies like the FBI or ICE. Although the Census Bureau is part of the federal government, the census does not ask about citizenship status.

Rivera says that so far, 2.5 million people have pledged not to fill out the census form. According to census data, each person who fills out a form represents an average of $1,000 a year for their community. If Rivera's calculations are correct, the boycott could result in a loss of $25 billion across the country over the next decade.”

Now if, in fact, Mr. Rivera does speak for some 2.5 million people, then his voice should be heard. However, there are positive and negative ways to lead in this debate, and I would argue that Mr. Rivera is taking the wrong tack. That being said, if Mr. Rivera can be talked down, so to speak, from his “boycott” ledge, and get on board with the rest of the faith based coalition members calling for a fair and just CIR, then I believe that his input would be most welcome. There remains an important component in the push for reform, and that is for the pro-CIR advocates to keep the administration’s feet to the fire, and the pressure on them to act, and act in a timely manner.

From Roll Call:

Having the immigration reform debate in an election year “is one of the great unknowns,” the second senior Senate Democratic aide said. While the aide noted that it’s “definitely something we want to do,” a decision on whether to have the fight will likely depend on how much pressure the Hispanic community puts on Democrats as well as how the overall political landscape looks for the majority, the aide said. 

In looking through my notes, I found something in an article that I wrote about 18 months ago, that speaks to the need for both Healthcare Reform, and an accurate census:

“What are the right wing's arguments against "amnesty," and why or how are they vulnerable to counter argument?...... 5) The perceived negative impact of illegal immigrants on our education system, and social services: There is nothing about this argument that isn't improved through legalization of the undocumented population. If we insist, as part of the legalization, that they learn English, then it will improve our workforce and education system, because the parents could help their kids with their studies. If we were to legalize these people, they wouldn't put an undo strain on our emergency rooms, because they would be insurable. Also, by insuring these people, they would be healthier overall, require less medical care. Also, by legalizing them, they could be counted in our census, thus insuring that the correct apportionment of tax dollars gets distributed to the correct areas where funds are needed.”

In retrospect, I misspoke in that article, when I asserted that legalization of their status would be required for immigrants to be counted in the census. Legally, that is not true; they only need to participate in the census to be counted. However, I sincerely believe that we would get a much more accurate and complete count in this census, if we did open a pathway to legal status for those that are undocumented.

I would also add that it is extremely ironic that cities like Hazelton, PA., who tried to pass anti-immigrant legislation in an effort to purge themselves of Hispanic residents, would have been much better off had those immigrants been counted in a census. If that had been the case, the City of Hazelton would have been properly apportioned the proper amount of federal money to pay for the social services that they felt were overwhelming their resources, (and which probably were).

In truth, almost everything about CIR would be positive for our entire country, and an accurate census is fundamental to an equitable distribution of our nation’s tax income. By obstructing CIR, we are passive-aggressively creating an “unfunded mandate” for social services in communities that have large uncounted “shadow” undocumented resident populations. Divisions abound on what CIR really means, and what CIR will require to be effective. However, certainly we can all agree that no matter what form a final CIR takes, and what we want it to achieve, at a minimum, we need to know exactly how many people live here, and which communities they live in. Those facts do not need to be controversial. There is nothing ideological about true numbers. In fact, at the end of the day, uniting behind an accurate census might be one of those rare issues in which we can all find common ground.