South county group urges illegal immigrants not to be counted
SAN LUIS, Ariz. — A citizens watchdog group in this city is joining a nationwide campaign urging illegal immigrants not to be counted in the 2010 census.
Residents in Defense of the People is taking up the call of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders because "we agree with this organization that rather than benefiting them, (the census) will hurt them," said David Lara, a member of the San Luis group.
While counting undocumented immigrants in the census means larger shares of federal funds for the communities where they live, the immigrants do not themselves benefit and, indeed, could open themselves up to anti-immigration backlash and greater risk of deportation, say Lara and the coalition's president.
Critics of the campaign say it could cost communities like San Luis needed funding and representation in government. They also call it hypocritical, labeling some of its participants as immigration opponents.
The residents group surfaced in 2008 as a watchdog of the spending and other practices of the city government. In recent months, it has criticized individual council members' use of city-issued credit cards and cell phones, and most recently Lara and two other group members ran unsuccessfully for council seats in the primary election.
The coalition, headquartered in Washington, D.C., consists of more than 20,000 churches and Christian ministries that have so far appealed to nearly 3.5 million undocumented members of their congregations not to participate in the census, according to its president, Miguel Rivera. The theme of the campaign that began last year is "Before they count, they have to legalize us."
The campaign is directed only at illegal immigrants because "if we make the appeal to the entire Latino community, we will be accused of making a political gesture and not one based on principles," Rivera said in a telephone interview.
"Our call to our brothers who are undocumented is an appeal based on principles," he added. "It's not right nor moral if they tell a person, 'Step out of the shadows, be counted so that I as a citizen can benefit from those $3,000 that you represent, while you have to return to the shadows and continue under illegal status, mistreated and pursued."
After the 2000 census, an anti-immigration campaign spread across the country, Rivera recalled, adding, "The census numbers are anti-immigration groups' argument for justifying their agenda of deportation and discrimination.
"There's an agenda among Latino groups to achieve a count of 50 million Hispanics, but right now our responsibility is to protect our brothers who are undocumented. We cannot demand that they participate in the census without any legal recourse to protect them against anti-immigrant laws."
Vianey Celestino, Arizona spokesman for the census, said that those who don't participate in the count are jeopardizing funds that "could benefit our families, our children and our communities."
She conceded that people who don't answer the census question face no legal consequences — "It's just established in the Constitution as a requirement."
Celestino stressed that information households provide to the census is kept confidential and is not used to round up illegal immigrants. "As has been said, the census does not share the information with any public or private agency, and for employees who do, there will be a fine of up to $250,000."
San Luis Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla termed regrettable the San Luis group's participation in the campaign.
"This is a whim and something personal for Mr. Lara, but let's not forget that in his group, there are older people who use the Senior Citizens Center, and we have that thanks to it being shown that San Luis has a large number of those residents. And that was thanks to the census."
Evarardo Martinez, a member of the Community Leadership Alliance, questioned "the hypocrisy of people who, who we all know, are against the undocumented and now say they want to protect them.
"Publicly, Lara has said he is against them," Martinez said. "It's a shame that now he said that in joining this campaign, he wants to protect them."
To criticize the census is to ignore U.S. history and world history, Martinez said. "Now a group with right-wing interests does want to recognize the rights of people to representation and those of communities to a fair distribution of funds."
Cesar Neyoy can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6890.