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US Census: Stand up and be counted?

Truck shows Portrait of America - part of a road tour informing people about the US census
The US Census Bureau is taking its show on the road

By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, New York

2010 is census year in America - and there is a lot riding on this drive to count everyone in the country. Some $400bn (£251bn) of federal money is allocated according to the population in each of the 50 states, and so are Congressional seats.

However, immigrant communities are often suspicious of the census, fearing the information could be used to deport those in the US illegally. Some Hispanic leaders are even calling for a boycott of the census, as I found out on a snowy morning in New York.

A troupe of dancers were braving the cold outside the Bronx Borough Hall, trying to drum up interest in the 2010 census.

Welcome to the Census Bureau road tour: census officials are criss-crossing the US with their signature blue trailers between now and April, targeting communities where traditionally people have been reluctant to be counted.

Ruben Diaz Jr
If you want better services, allow yourself to be counted, I am guaranteeing that nothing bad will happen to you
Ruben Diaz Jr,
Bronx Borough president

In the Bronx, just 56% of people returned the census in 2000, a "horrible" result, according to Bronx Borough president Ruben Diaz Jr.

He says the Bronx lost federal dollars and even seats in Congress because of undercounting.

Ligia Jaquez of the US Census Bureau is here to persuade people it is worth their while to fill out the form.

"It's the benefits that you bring to your community," she says.

"The government and the state use that data, for funding for new roads, new schools, for emergency services. When your community isn't counted properly then the funding will be low."

But not everyone wants to be counted.

Fear of deportation

Take the estimated 12 million people who are in the US without the right legal documents, eight million of whom are thought to be from the Hispanic community.

Many fear that if they fill out the census, the information will be given to the immigration service and they will be deported.

Ruben Diaz Jr insists that those who are undocumented have nothing to fear from the census.

"We're telling them no-one is going to come knocking on your door, this is not about the Immigration and Naturalization Service, this is confidential. So all of those people, if you want better services, allow yourself to be counted, I am guaranteeing that nothing bad will happen to you," he says.

Reverend Carlos Soto
I know how afraid the people are, they are hiding, and they believe the police force is looking for them
Carlos Soto

Since 1790, the census has counted residents, not citizens, says Mr Diaz, pointing out that many residents have children who are US citizens, and therefore it is in their interest to get more government money for education.

The Census Bureau is reinforcing that message, with glossy TV ads in Spanish which emphasize that people's private information will not be shared - meaning they will not give data to the Immigration Service.

But within the Hispanic community, there is a debate about whether or not people here illegally should be counted in the census.

The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian leaders (Conlamic), which the organisers say represents 20,000 churches in 34 states, is calling for undocumented people to boycott the census.

On the Conlamic website, the Reverend Miguel Rivera explains why:

"Our goal to draw notice to immigration reform through requesting undocumented Latinos to boycott the 2010 census is brought on by necessity - without dramatic attention focussed towards the issue now, there is no telling when significant immigration reform might materialise."

In his church in Newark, New Jersey, the Reverend Carlos Soto tells me why he agrees with the boycott.

"I know how afraid the people are, they are hiding, and they believe the police force is looking for them. I believe they shouldn't be counted until they've been legalised. The governors, the leaders of each state want to count them in order to receive money, but that money is going to be used for the other residents that are legal. So why should they be counted?" he asks.

Uncertain impact

Mr Rivera says the sadness and agony endured by undocumented Latinos and their families is heartbreaking. This should be addressed through immigration reform, he argues.

If they count us, the Hispanic people, they know how many we are and then they're going to know how to work with us
Bronx resident

But Mr Diaz Jr says talk of a boycott is irresponsible. Mixing up immigration reform with the census is like mixing apples and oranges. "We need people to be counted," he stresses.

Until the census forms go out in March, it is hard to know how much of an impact the calls for a boycott will have.

On the streets of the Bronx, not many people wanted to talk about the census. Those who did, were in favour of filling out the forms.

"It helps to count everybody that's in the Bronx, we could be counted and get more money to help the Bronx improve," one woman told me.

A mother pushing a pram said, "It's very important because if they count us, the Hispanic people, they know how many we are and then they're going to know how to work with us."

Putting the politics of the census aside, the effort to count the US is a mini-stimulus package of its own. The promotional blitz is costing over $300m, and the Census Bureau is expected to hire 1.2 million temporary workers to administer the census, creating jobs in this fragile economy.



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