CENSUS WATCH: Census boycott splits Latinos

By Marcelo Ballvé, New America Media

Earlier this year, a prominent Latino religious leader proposed a boycott of the 2010 Census as a way for undocumented immigrants to bring their voices to bear on the immigration debate.
The boycott, pushed by the Rev. Miguel Ángel Rivera of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, now seems to be gaining momentum in some Latino communities, as well as a higher profile in the ethnic media.
In part that's because of mounting frustration with President Obama's failure to deliver an immigration reform plan this year, as he promised while campaigning for Latino votes last year.
In Los Angeles, well-known leftist activist Nativo Lopez of the Mexican American Political Association has thrown his support behind Rivera's boycott.
Speaking recently on the Univision TV network's widely-watched weekly show "Al Punto," Lopez said: "We're calling for a boycott, asking for non-cooperation with the Census, until there's just and comprehensive immigration reform and legal status for everybody."
The two other immigrant leaders invited to speak on that week's program, anchored by Univision's Jorge Ramos, disagreed sharply with the boycott plan.
"It's a well-intentioned strategy, but it's the wrong answer and it will have negative consequences," said one of them, Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Likewise, other influential boycott critics like the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, warned it will drain dollars, political representation and influence from Latino communities.
In a strange twist, Latino supporters of the boycott find themselves on the same side as right-wing immigration hard-liners, who also do not want undocumented immigrants included in the 2010 Census.
Right-wing commentators like columnist Michelle Malkin and CNN's Lou Dobbs, as well as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., already are targeting the Census Bureau for counting undocumented immigrants. These critics believe counting those who entered the country illegally unfairly inflates Latino political influence.
Mark Krikorian, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for more restrictive immigration laws, described Rev. Rivera's plan as "a boycott I can get behind."
Krikorian noted that the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, has sued twice, unsuccessfully, to have undocumented immigrants excluded from the Census. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified FAIR as a hate group.)
"I honestly don't understand the logic of it," Krikorian wrote of the Census boycott in the National Review online, "since the more illegal aliens who are counted, the more (illegitimate) representation hard-left elites receive... since illegal aliens are included in the counts for apportionment. But whatever the thinking, we should hope for its great success."
Despite the strange bedfellows, Rev. Rivera's boycott has begun to be the subject of buzz and passionate debate among Latino immigrants.
In Massachusetts, the Census boycott has caused a rift within the large and often-overlooked Brazilian immigrant community. Earlier this month, Fausto da Rocha, executive director of the Allston, Mass.-based Brazilian Immigrant Center, endorsed the boycott and had Rev. Rivera on his AM radio program.
On the call-in show, da Rocha surveyed his listeners on whether they would participate in the 2010 Census. Among undocumented immigrants, only six out of 106 callers said they would, according to reporting by Angela Schreiber in Comunidade News in Danbury, Conn. Among legal immigrants, only 20 out of 65 callers to the show said they would cooperate.
Like other newspaper editors and publishers, Breno da Mata of Comunidade News said he felt he had to report on the Census controversy once it became a topic of discussion in his community. "We couldn't just close our eyes to it," he said.
Many Brazilian immigrant leaders disagree with da Rocha's embrace of the boycott, just as many evangelical leaders split publicly with Rev. Rivera when he came out against the Census.
In the Boston area, five Brazilian newspapers issued a statement to counter da Rocha's position. "We support the 2010 Census unconditionally because we believe it is the best and safest way to learn the real size of the Brazilian community," said the statement published by the New England Ethnic News website and signed by A Noticia, A Semana, Brazilian Times, Metropolitan Brazilian News, and Jornal dos Sports USA.
Fausto da Rocha's critics believe most Brazilians will end up supporting the Census count. But they admit da Rocha's strong endorsement of the boycott will have its impact.
"People began to form their opinions on the Census once Fausto went on the radio," acknowledged Paulo Monauer, editor and publisher of the Portuguese-language Jornal dos Sports USA paper in Massachusetts.
It's believed that as many as 300,000 Brazilians live in Massachusetts alone, and that as many as four-fifths of them may be undocumented.
Among Spanish-speaking Latinos in the Boston area, boycott support still seems limited, though press coverage has spread awareness, said Marcela García, editor of newspaper El Planeta.
However, she believed the boycott "has a lot of potential to gain more momentum" since so many Latino immigrants feel increasingly "fed-up and desperate" with the stalled immigration overhaul.
In Atlanta, the boycott still seems largely confined to certain Latino pastors and their loyal evangelical flocks, but the U.S. Census Bureau has been too timid in confronting Rev. Rivera, said Judith Martinez-Sadri, editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Latino newspaper.
"This gentleman has gotten ahead of them," she said, adding that the Rev. Rivera was on an Atlanta-area religious radio program this month that received dozens of calls.
García, of El Planeta, agreed the Census Bureau should rise to the challenge. "I would have expected them to come out with a more forceful reaction," she said.
In fact, the task of arguing against the boycott has mostly been taken up by Latino leaders outside of government.
In New York City this summer for example, Rev. Rivera appeared on WABC-TV, in a televised debate with Angelo Falcón, a well-known Latino political analyst who argued the "con" position against the boycott, to Rivera's "pro."
The boycott has surfaced again and again in recent ethnic media reporting on Census 2010. In Philadelphia, for example, when the Al Día newspaper invited Census Bureau officials to an event, a reporter peppered Fernando Armstrong, regional director, with boycott questions.
"It's a distraction" that could be harmful, admitted Armstrong. He warned that hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding are channeled annually based on Census figures. He added that Latinos, as the country's fastest-growing demographic group, stand to gain access to greater political clout and dollars with a proper count.
Major Spanish-language television broadcasters such as Univision, Telemundo and Azteca America are vocal Census 2010 supporters. Telemundo for example, launched a national initiative: "°Hazte Contar!" or "Be Counted!" to increase awareness and participation. Similarly, Azteca America is promoting a "Yo Cuento" or "I Count" campaign in the Bay Area.
But aside from covering the boycott as a news story, the networks are against the boycott. "We support that the people be counted," said Helder Rodriguez, operations manager at Azteca America in San Francisco. As for the boycott, "we only see it as news, we're not promoting it."
For his part, Rev. Rivera, whose organization claims 20,000 associated churches in 34 states, believes Hispanic media has not yet given the Census boycott its due share of airtime.
"They haven't opened the door to any type of debate," he said. "It's not that they have to support our position, but at least give us fair coverage."
Karen Yi in New York contributed to this report.
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