Census Reaches Out to Hispanics, Illegal Immigrants

State government, nonprofits and Telemundo promote filling out census forms.

February 5, 2010, 4:22 PM

Feb. 16, 2010— -- Pedro trekked across the border from Mexico 10 years ago in search of a better life.

But now, standing outside a Mexican bakery in Phoenix, he shuffles his feet and shifts his eyes from side to side as he speaks. "I'm always looking around, just in case," he said.

Pedro, who would not give his last name, is an illegal immigrant. "America is the place for opportunity," Pedro said. "I knew I had to cross over."

He is single and has been working in construction in Arizona since his arrival. "I've got a clean record," Pedro, who's in his 30s, said. "I just mind my own business."

But despite that clean record, Pedro is one of many illegal immigrants living in Arizona who plan to ignore the upcoming Census 2010, even though he knows it's confidential.

"They call us illegals, and we don't count for the government," Pedro said. "They push us away and they don't want us here. So what [do] they want us [for]? Just [so] we get counted for money?"

The high-stakes head count of Census 2010 is weeks away, and many state officials across the South and Southwest worry about getting an accurate count of the Hispanic population; and, more specifically, the illegal immigrant population.

Census officials say the illegal immigrant population is key in this year's census, not only from a statistical standpoint but also because much-needed federal money hangs in the balance.

"We have many people who are in Arizona who are not here legally but whose children attend our schools and go to hospitals, and those are all affected by the census results and the federal dollars that come back to Arizona," Phoenix Census Bureau manager Al Nieto said.

Arizona, for instance, would lose $400 per year for the next 10 years for every person missed, according to the Census Bureau. (After the 2000 census, auditors found that close to 20,000 Phoenix residents had not been counted in Arizona, adding up to about $80 million in lost funding in the past decade.)

Arizona Could Miss Out on Congressional Seat

The state, which has eight representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, stands to gain two more seats.

But, between the illegal immigrant population and sluggish population growth, many state officials believe they'll fall about 60,000 people short of getting that second seat, meaning one less vote on important issues.

Census forms are mailed in March and need to be returned by April 1. Workers will start going door to door for people who fail to return their forms on time.

To help secure a more accurate count, the U.S. Census Bureau office in Phoenix has recruited more than 160 community leaders from Hispanic and faith-based organizations to encourage illegal immigrants to participate.

Max Gonzales, vice president of communications for Chicanos por la Causa, a leading Hispanic organization in Arizona, said many immigrants are scared.

"They don't want to fill out the forms, for obvious reasons," Gonzales said. "So it's our job to let them know how important it really is."

But groups such as the the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders are telling immigrants to boycott the forms. The group, which represents more than 20,000 Hispanic churches across the country, states on its Web site: "Antes de contzar, nos tienen que legalizar," or "Before you count us, you have to legalize us."

The Rev. Miguel Rivera, the group's chairman and co-founder, said, "Without a promise of legalization and a new system to give opportunities to these immigrants to correct their status, we can't in good conscience ask them to fill out these forms."

About 45.4 million people, or 15.1 percent of the U.S. population, is Hispanic, making it the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, according to the Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey. Of those 45.4 million people, officials estimate close to 10 million are here illegally.

The Hispanic population was undercounted by about 3.5 million nationwide in 2000, the bureau estimates. Sixty-five percent of Hispanic residents returned census forms, compared with 78 percent of residents who classified themselves as "white," according to the General Accounting Office.

Perla Beltran, the Fictitious TV Census Worker

"The Hispanic community is a powerful and dramatically growing force in this country," Don Browne, president of Telemundo, said. "There are profound demographic shifts going on, so this is a critically important time."

To aid in census efforts, Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish broadcast television network in the country, launched an initiative in April 2009 called "Hazte Contar!" or "Be Counted!" Telemundo hopes to inform its viewers about the census by placing information on all its platforms, from the evening news to its online Web site.

The network even made one of its main characters on the popular Spanish-language telenovela "Mas Sabe el Diablo" ("The Devil Knows Best") an attractive young woman named Perla Beltran (played by Michelle Vargas) a census worker.

"There is fear within the undocumented and documented Hispanic communities right now," Browne said. "But this census character is a vehicle that can help change that by reaching out to both populations."

Browne said Beltran's job as a census worker will help show people how to fill out the census forms and let them know that whatever information they provide is confidential.

Nieto, the Phoenix Census manager, said it's all about spreading the word.

"Probably the most important thing the committee is doing is making sure people understand that this information is confidential," Nieto said. "That information on the forms is not and cannot be legally shared with anyone. Any law enforcement agencies, any state or federal agencies, not even the president of the United States can get access to this information."

Despite group efforts, Gonzales of Chicanos por la Causa said he believes it will be difficult to convince many illegal immigrants to fill out the forms.

Some will refuse. "How can the census have the audacity to ask these immigrants to fill out these forms when they're not willing to recognize their status here?" Rivera of the clergy group said. "No representation, so no cooperation."

But Gonzales said the Census Bureau is just doing its job. "They're just doing the requirements of the Constitution, which is to go out and count every inhabitant," he said. "An inhabitant doesn't mean whether it's documented or undocumented. It's every inhabitant."

ABCNews.com contributor Maxine Park is a member of the Arizona State University ABC News on Campus bureau.