In a high-stakes battle that could affect California's share of federal funding and political representation, immigrant activists are vowing to combat efforts by a national Latino clergy group to persuade 1 million illegal immigrants to boycott the 2010 U.S. census.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, which says it represents 20,000 Latino churches in 34 states, recently announced that a quarter of its 4 million members were prepared to join the boycott as a way to intensify pressure for legalization and to protect themselves from government scrutiny.
"Before being counted, we need to be legalized," said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, the coalition's chairman and founder.
But the boycott call has infuriated many Latino organizations. La Opinion, in a recent editorial, denounced it as a "dangerous mistake" that "verges on political suicide" while an official with the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials called it "wildly irresponsible."
"This is a phenomenal step backward in the strides we have made to make sure we are equal," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Latino officials group.
The decennial census, which counts all people regardless of immigration status, is used to allocate federal funds for education, housing, healthcare, transportation and other local needs. By some estimates, every person counted results in $1,000 in federal funds.
The census is also used to apportion the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which are based on a state's population.
According to a study in 2003, California's sizable illegal immigrant population allowed it to gain three House seats it might otherwise not have received. The state's illegal immigrant population also caused Indiana, Michigan and Mississippi to each lose one of their seats and prevented Montana from gaining a seat.
The study by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that promotes immigration restrictions, also argued that the illegal immigrant population skewed the "one man, one vote" principle in elections.
In 2002, the study found, it took almost 100,000 votes to win the typical congressional race in the four states that lost or failed to gain a seat, compared with 35,000 votes to win in immigrant-rich districts in California.
Back in 1988, the effect on apportionment, which also affects the Electoral College, prompted a lawsuit by 40 members of Congress, Pennsylvania and the Federation for American Immigration Reform to prevent the Census Bureau from counting illegal immigrants. The complaint was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of standing.
"People who have no right to be in this country should not be counted," said federation President Dan Stein. "It's awfully hard to explain to U.S. citizens why they keep losing political representation to states like California because of people who broke immigration laws."
Vargas and others questioned the boycott organizers' political motivations, noting that most of them were conservative.
Rivera acknowledged that his coalition endorsed George W. Bush in 2004 and slightly favored Republican presidential nominee John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama by a vote of 52% to 48% last year. But he denied that the boycott was aimed at aiding Republicans.
He said his group was concerned that federal funds obtained in part through the counting of illegal immigrants would be used against them to increase arrests and harassment by local law enforcement.
Rivera also said he wanted to use the boycott as a way to pressure Congress to pass legislation offering legalization to illegal immigrants.
So far, his group appears to have gained little traction in California. A group of affiliated Latino pastors plans to meet in the next week or two to discuss the boycott call but has made no decision yet, according to Jose Caballero, a Camarillo minister.
But other Latino leaders say they are nervous about the boycott.
"The fact that they are getting a lot of media attention concerns us that they could do a lot of damage," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Washington, D.C.
Using the same slogan as their successful citizenship campaigns -- "Ya es Hora," or "It's Time" -- Spanish-language media, community groups, labor unions and churches plan to launch a far-reaching campaign urging mass participation in the census.
Boycott or not, they have their work cut out for them. Although the Census Bureau by law must keep information confidential, that message has not entirely gotten through.
At Our Lady Queen of Angels Church near Olvera Street, migrant farm worker Juan Garcia said he would not participate because of fears of how the information might be used.
Another illegal immigrant, Julian Chavez, also voiced concern that census workers would contact him at work, go to his home and ask nosy questions. Asked if he would participate, Chavez hedged his answer.
"Will there be consequences?" he asked. "I have my family to think about."