Arizona Immigration Law Makes Census Count Tougher

About 70 parents usually attend monthly parent-teacher meetings here at the Pena Blanca Elementary School. In April, at the last meeting of this school year, only 20 showed up.

"There is a little fear," says Sandra Figueroa, principal of this Santa Cruz County school 12 miles from the Mexican border.

Fear, mistrust, anger. The immigration law approved by the Arizona Legislature last month requires police to determine a person's immigration status if they're stopped, detained or arrested and there is "reasonable suspicion" they're here illegally. It has sparked legal challenges and strong emotions on both sides of the immigration debate.

Whatever its future, the law could not have come at a worse time for the 2010 Census.

The once-a-decade government count of every person in the USA began in March with a giant mail-out. Seventy-two percent of U.S. households responded by mail -- 67 percent in Arizona and 64 percent in Santa Cruz County. On May 1 -- eight days after the immigration law was signed into law -- 635,000 Census workers nationwide started going door-to-door to every home that did not send back the forms. They will return up to six times until they get answers to the 10 questions on the form.

In Arizona, many civic groups fear the new law will discourage cooperation.

"I've talked to friends and people in the community, and they're saying -- whatever they think of the law, wherever they stand on the issue: 'I'm not going to open the door to anyone right now,'" says Tucson City Councilor Regina Romero, who represents largely Hispanic neighborhoods.

"People are scared, they're frightened," says Laura Cummings, a Census employee who works with local groups to build community support.

Census organizers have redoubled outreach efforts, doing more presentations to community groups, adult education classes and churches and public service announcements.

Isabel Garcia, a lawyer and co-chair of Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition) in Tucson, has taken to the airwaves, even filling out her Census form on the radio to talk listeners through the process.

"Our communities are living in a very heightened state of anxiety," she says, citing low turnout at this year's Cinco de Mayo festival, a celebration of the Mexican army's victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

Many don't realize that the law won't take effect until July, when Census workers will be done knocking on doors, Cummings says. "We're telling people what the process is, that confidentiality still holds, that Census workers are not police officers and are not looking to report anybody."

Outreach to Kids

A week before the school year ends, local officials are making a last-ditch effort to tout participation in the Census through schoolchildren who can carry the message home to their parents.

As students gather for morning assembly on the Pena Blanca school's outdoor plaza, many sporting colorful hats and hair in honor of Spirit Week, the Pledge of Allegiance and birthday greetings are followed by speeches stressing the importance of cooperating with Census workers.

"How many of you saw your parents fill it out and mail it?" shouts Democratic County Supervisor Rudy Molera. "It's really important that it counts everybody ... little people like yourselves." Figueroa tells them the school will get the balls and jump ropes it so desperately needs thanks to the Census.

The Constitution requires a population count every 10 years. The numbers are primarily used to assign seats in the House of Representatives to every state. Arizona, which has eight, stands to gain one after this year's Census. The count also serves as the basis for the annual distribution of $435 billion in federal aid.

A complete count can bolster a community's political clout and send more money its way.

Sending Census workers knocking on doors in this climate in a border state where 2 million, or more than a third of the population, is Hispanic is daunting.

When the law was passed, "I was sitting here going, 'Oh great. What's going to happen?' " says Paul Fimbres, manager of the Tucson office that oversees many counties along the border.

He has a contingency plan for areas tough to penetrate: "In case that happens, we blitz," Fimbres says. "We send 15 or 20 people or teams of two or maybe three."

An Economic Hit

Sales at the Walmart Supercenter store in the border town of Nogales, about 60 miles south of Tucson, are among the highest in the company -- except lately.

The parking lot is less crowded these days because shoppers on both sides of the border are staying away, says Olivia Ainza-Kramer, president and CEO of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce. Weekend boycotts have brought business to a standstill.

"Undocumented people in the county are fearful and suspicious," says Mary Dahl, director of community development for the county and head of its Census committee. "The timing of everything seems to be bad for the Census."

Lifelong Nogales residents Cathy Garino, 48, and Elvia "Yolie" Carrillo, 50, knock on doors to collect Census data. So far, so good, they say. Carrillo has encountered homes where 12 people live.

"Some people will hold back because of the language barrier," Garino says. "Another one told me it's your job to come to the door ... What has helped in my case is that everyone knows me."