Hispanic Christian Groups Split on Illegal Immigrants, U.S. Census

Several Hispanic organizations, including some Christian groups, spoke out this week about whether illegal immigrants should participate in the 2010 U.S. census.

The debate intensified when leaders of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian (CONLAMIC) urged illegal immigrants to boycott the census unless Congress passes immigration reform legislation. The leaders claim information obtained by the census will be used by "anti-immigrant forces" to the disadvantage of undocumented Latinos in the country.

"Our church leaders have witnessed misuse of otherwise benign Census population data by state and local public officials in their efforts to pass and enact laws that assist in the perpetration of civil rights violations and abuses against undocumented workers and families," expressed the Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of CONLAMIC, in a statement this week.

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"We cannot tell our congregants to be patient, cooperative, and to trust our government any longer. We must protect them as God would have it and urge them to protect their families from any further mistreatment," he added.

Though Rivera claims that the information collected in the 2000 census were used to target the undocumented population, census officials say the information is confidential and respondents are not asked about their immigration status or for a social security number.

Still, CONLAMIC wants the U.S. government to provide a way for the undocumented to become legal residents and workers before they agree to be counted in the census. There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Meanwhile, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the largest Hispanic Christian organization in the country, has voiced its disagreement with CONLAMIC's call and urges all Latinos to participate in the upcoming census.

NHCLC is the sister organization of the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals and claims to represent 14.5 million Hispanic Christians on issues relating to family, immigration, economic mobility, education, political empowerment, and spiritual/moral development.

 "For our communities, the benefits of participating in the census are essential to accurate representation, allocation of resources, and to gauge how our community continues to grow," said the Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, vice president of social justice for the NHCLC, in a statement Thursday.

"The clear majority of Latino advocacy and faith organizations support the efforts of the U.S. Census Bureau to count each person in America in 2010, including the traditionally undercounted Hispanic population," he said.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and a member of the Decennial Census advisory committee, further pointed to the consequences of skipping out on the census.

"To do this boycott to pressure comprehensive immigration reform is like cutting off your nose to spite your face," Vargas told The Associated Press. "There is no connection between the census and immigration reform; it's undermining the community by encouraging an undercount; and it's misguided and irresponsible."

He added, "The census is confidential and is a constitutional requirement. In essence, they're encouraging people to break the law."

People who refuse to answer a census can be fined as much as $100, while those that provide false information can be fined as much as $500, according to U.S. law.

Vargas said that while everyone in the Latino community wants to see comprehensive immigration reform, the "more impactful way" to get there is to be counted rather than having an undercount.

Efforts in support of immigration reform got a boost from the Obama administration earlier this month when senior White House staff said the president plans to start tackling the thorny issue this year, with talks beginning as soon as early May. The staff, however, clarified that there is no promise for a vote this year on new immigration laws.

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