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.
Activists Urge Census Boycott
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."
The majority of pro-immigrant groups oppose such a boycott, saying such an effort could hurt states with large immigrant populations which might lose federal funds because of skewed population figures.
"I identify with the frustration over inaction on immigration reform," said Martinez. "But to say that you should not participate is misguided. You are robbing that local government, that state government from resources when you say they shouldn't be counted. Participation is what changes things, not inaction."
Census participation is required by law and the Census Bureau can impose a fine of $100 for failure to register.
"These calls to boycott are irresponsible," said Gold. "[NALEO has] dialogued with [the boycotters]…but we have not found them particularly responsive."
Some Latinos Wonder if Census Confidential
Latino leaders say concerns about confidentiality of data collected by the census weakens participation in hard-to-count communities.
Clarissa Gold tells ABC News the "divisive tone" and "scapegoating of immigrants" in recent national debate is the "kind of dialogue that makes immigrants very, very fearful about how the information is used."
Commerce Department spokesman Nick Kimball told The Associated Press "all the information the Census Bureau collects is protected by law and will not be shared with any other agency."
Still, Kimball says his agency will not ask the Department of Homeland Security to temporarily halt Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids against undocumented workers as it did during the 2000 census to aid participation in the count.
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, told ABC News the development is "very concerning."
"The impact that any raid has is a chilling effect – that government is after you, hunting you down… Many immigrants don't distinguish between ICE, IRS, the census, etc. Anytime there's strengthened enforcement, there is concern that more people will go into hiding," Hincapie said.
"When you've got a community that is not trusting of the government to begin with, steps must be taken to improve that trust." Hincapie said the Center plans to work with its allies to ask the Department of Homeland Security to impose a moratorium on the raids during the count.
Optimism to Prevent Another Under-Count
Concerns about an accurate count of the Latino community partly stem from the outcome of the 2000 census, when the Census Bureau estimated that it over-counted the total population by 1.3 million people while under-counting Hispanics by 250,000.
"The over-count generally and undercount of Latinos was a double whammy," said Martinez of the blow a false count can deal to particular groups of Americans.
Still, Martinez and other observers are optimistic that the count will be more accurate this time around.
NALEO, National Council of La Raza, Service Employees International Union and Mi Familia Vota, a political advocacy group, are part of the widespread grass-roots campaign to highlight awareness of the census' importance.
Spanish-language media have even joined the campaign, promoting the census among their viewers. The Telemundo television network has written a census storyline into their popular soap opera "Mas Sabe El Diablo." And Univision plans to broadcast a 30-minute public service program in March, instructing Latinos how to complete forms and answer census worker questions.
Other reasons for optimism? Mark Hugo Lopez with the Pew Hispanic Center says Hispanic political participation grew during the 2008 presidential election when 20 percent of Hispanic voters turned out for the first time.
"Success will be that we don't have an undercount," said Martinez.
Recent census projections indicate the Hispanic population in the U.S. will triple by 2050, from 46.7 million in 2008 to 132.8 million in 2050 – making it the largest minority group in the country. By those figures, one in three U.S. residents will be Hispanic. The Associated Press contributed to this report.