With the 2010 census just six months away, Latino leaders say the stakes have never been higher for getting an accurate count of their fast-growing community, which is projected to top 59.7 million in the U.S. by 2020.
Latino advocacy groups have launched an aggressive campaign to boost participation in the census, allay fears over confidentiality of the information it gathers, and counteract isolated efforts to boycott the count as a way of forcing immigration reform.
Advocates say the census is the only means for Latinos – a diverse and fast-growing population – to achieve greater political representation and benefit from federal programs that directly affect immigrants and their families.
Census data is collected once every ten years by law and determines apportionment of congressional seats and distribution of more than $400 billion in federal aid.
"If we don't have an accurate count, then immigrants will suffer," Rosalind Gold of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) told ABC News. "It will mean less representation and less ability to get our voices heard."
But accurately counting America's Latinos during the census – set to begin April 1, 2010 – will be a formidable challenge, immigrant groups fear.
"Undercounts happen in communities that are highly mobile and low income," Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza told ABC news. "Latinos are often both of those."
"With people moving around for jobs or family it's hard to get their information when the form comes through the mail," she said.
Martinez said the wave of foreclosures across the country will undoubtedly add to confusion among Latinos and other Americans who have lost their homes or had to move in with relatives.
Language differences may also threaten the accuracy of a Latino count, says Martinez. She hopes the Census Bureau will hire more Spanish-speakers to take part in field work and outreach to "demystify the process."
The Census Bureau previously announced the unprecedented step of printing 13 million bilingual census forms to encourage participation. The 2010 questionnaire will also be one of the shortest ever, asking only 10 questions.
Another challenge for Latinos in the decennial count comes from a small but vocal group of community leaders urging Latinos to boycott the census to protest congressional inaction on immigration reform.
Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which represents 20,000 churches nationwide, first proposed the boycott. The effort has spread by word-of-mouth, across the Internet on immigrant blogs and websites, and on several talk radio programs across the country.
Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association, said in a statement that "noncooperation and noncompliance appears as the greatest leverage available to immigrants in their own pursuit of fairness and justice."
Lopez and his supporters say the counting of undocumented immigrants only benefits state and local governments who use their population figures to apply for federal funds.
"Latino undocumented immigrants are being used only as scapegoats," Rivera writes on his Web site, "[They have] a dollar sign over their heads… [but] the monies are not available for themselves to be equally benefitted."