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Immigration Debate Boils Over to Census

President Obama has yet to take on immigration reform, but the status of undocumented immigrants in the United States will become a hot topic again soon enough as a result of the 2010 census count.

Some Latino groups angered by the president's lack of action on immigration reform are calling for a boycott of the census to prove the Hispanic community's growing political leverage. Other organizations are calling for just the opposite, mobilizing to ensure that the growing minority group is accurately counted.

Meanwhile, two Republican senators will try this week to add questions regarding citizenship and immigration status to the census. Senators David Vitter (R-La.) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah) recently introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that would bar funding for the U.S. Census Bureau unless it adds the questions to the nation's survey of the U.S. population, which takes place every ten years.

The census will have an enormous impact on communities, influencing the number of congressional representatives they get and the amount of federal dollars they receive for public works projects like roads and schools. The challenge of counting all of the nation's residents will be even more difficult next year, now that cities are dealing with depleted budgets and will have to seek out citizens who have become homeless or displaced by their own financial hardship.

The census counts everyone who lives in the country, legally or otherwise. For the first time, bilingual English-Spanish census questionnaires will be sent to about 13 million households next year.

Given that communities are granted power and money based on their population, one Latino leader is arguing that local governments should not receive those benefits unless leaders intend to represent all of their residents, including illegal immigrants.

Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, wants illegal immigrants to boycott the census, the Washington Times reports.

"The truth is that counting undocumented immigrants creates what we call ghost electoral districts, and that is completely immoral," he told the newspaper.

The San Francisco-based Latin American Alliance for Immigrant Rights is also calling for a boycott of the census unless Congress acts to legalize undocumented immigrants before the census starts in April, according to the Oakland Tribune.

"We have to send a clear message that we don't want to be used," said Miguel Robles, the group's director. "If these people decide not to be counted, the cities and counties will lose a lot of money."

This position aligns these immigrant rights groups with conservatives they are typically at odds with on the issue of immigration reform.

"We shouldn't let these states be rewarded for skirting our federal laws and this amendment would help stop this practice," Vitter reportedly said when introducing his amendment. "It obviously won't help us identify all illegal aliens, but it's a step in the right direction. Illegal aliens should not be included for the purposes of determining representation in Congress, and that's the bottom line here."

Detractors of the amendment argue it would delay the census; force the government to spend more money for additional testing, printing and training; and make it less accurate.

"In a country of 308 million people, getting a complete headcount is a gargantuan undertaking even when the number of questions (now ten) is small," write Audrey Singer and Andrew Reamer, two fellows with the Metropolitan Policy Program. "Add a bitter politicized environment around immigration and it's understandable why many immigrants, even those legally present, may not want to stand up to be counted."

Other Latino and immigrant-rights groups strongly disagree with the boycott idea. In fact, a coalition of Latino groups backed by the Census Bureau are running a campaign aimed at achieving a more accurate count of Latinos in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Called "Ya Es Hora. Hagase Contar!" (It's Time, Make Yourself Count!), the campaign is being driven by unions, grassroots organizations and Spanish-language media.

"This is the most important census for the Latino community because it's the first census in which Latinos make up the nation's second-largest population group," Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), told the Washington Times.

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