Originally created 05/30/99

Immigrant urges reliable census for federal funds



MACON -- The U.S. census was about the least important process the young Javier Gonzalez had to worry about when his family crossed the Texas border from his native Mexico in the mid-1970s. Or so he thought.

As it happened, the census was responsible for providing the bilingual education, health care and other migrant education services made available to Mr. Gonzalez, his parents and eight siblings during their farm work in Texas, Florida and Georgia.

Four years after he dropped out of ninth grade, federal Pell Grant money and low-interest student loans helped Mr. Gonzalez leave the vegetable fields, earn a high school equivalency diploma and later a master's degree in educational administration.

Federal agencies use census numbers to distribute $200 billion of federal money annually among states and communities. But Hispanics are thought to be the most undercounted population in the nation.

Government officials think Georgia's 1990 census count of 101,379 Hispanics -- about 2 percent of the state's population -- was undercounted by about 7 percent. Census estimates for 1997 showed the state with more than 207,000 Hispanics.

In 1990, Georgia lost about $160 million in federal money because of lower-than-expected census tallies, said Javier Lescano, coordinator of Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Services for the Georgia Department of Labor.

Today, Mr. Gonzalez, 29, has gone from recipient to administrator of migrant educational services at Two Rivers Migrant Education Agency in Ellaville. And Wednesday, he encouraged migrant advocates to help count Georgia's farmworkers during the 2000 census to get federal money to families like his.

Mr. Gonzalez addressed about 200 migrant advocates and Department of Labor employees in Macon, where the Census Bureau is enlisting some of at least 85,000 people in Georgia, Florida and Alabama to count the states' migrants. The mostly Hispanic population is often uncounted because of their travel, nontraditional living arrangements and their reluctance to take part in government surveys.

Census information is confidential, but many migrant workers -- half of whom are illegally in the country -- often refuse to participate out of fear that they will be arrested and deported. But the information actually helps provide all residents, legal and illegal, with social services, said Carmen Vega, monitor advocate of program analysis for the Georgia Department of Labor.

"It's a body count. And every body equals dollar bills," she said. "It's very important that we have an accurate count."

Beginning immediately, advocates hired by the Census Bureau will begin educating migrant workers in the "Hagase Contar" campaign, which means "make yourself count."

Jacqueline Rosier's agency, MALDEF -- Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund -- is helping in the count. Ms. Rosier said the count will become more important only as Georgia's Hispanic population grows rapidly. Each person counted represents about $15,000 in federal money over 10 years, she said.

"The families continue to come," she said.

Mr. Gonzalez wants those families to have the same opportunities to be educated with federal money that he had.

"If I tried to repay all that I personally was given, I don't think I could come close," he said.