Ga. Latino community leaders mobilizing for census

NORCROSS, Ga. – Census workers and Latino community leaders from around Georgia met Friday to discuss ways to encourage Latinos, including illegal immigrants, to participate in next year's census.

The effort, dubbed Georgia Census 2010 Latino Complete Count, aims to organize volunteer teams to do "whatever it takes" to ensure everyone is counted, said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, or GALEO, which is spearheading the initiative.

"I think it is critically important for all communities to make sure everyone in their community is counted," Gonzalez said.

Census results are used to calculate distribution of federal funding and congressional representation. Gonzalez noted that Georgia has grown since the last census and could gain additional U.S. representatives if everyone is counted, giving the state more sway in Congress.

About 20 representatives from faith-based groups, schools, businesses, Spanish-language media and community groups met with census workers Friday.

Getting the Latino population, especially illegal immigrants, to participate presents a particular challenge, said Gerson Vasquez, a census worker.

"Many of them have an inherent distrust of government," he said. "Either they brought it with them from their home countries or they developed it here because of some of the immigration measures that have been passed."

The 10-question census form asks about race and ethnicity. It does not ask about immigration status, or for a Social Security number or other identification, Vasquez said.

The Constitution requires that every person living in the country be counted. Refusing to answer a census inquiry is punishable by a fine of up to $100 under U.S. law. That fine can climb as high as $500 for providing false information.

One group, the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, has called on illegal immigrants to boycott the census unless Congress first passes comprehensive immigration reform. Rev. Miguel Rivera, who heads the coalition, said the group supports a full and accurate census count but wants illegal immigrants to have equal rights before they agree to be counted.

"If they are going to be counted, they need to be legalized first so they have the right to vote so they can hold the elected politicians accountable and benefit from the services provided by the federal money," Rivera said.

He said the boycott also grew out of the feeling that census figures from 2000 were used by law enforcement and anti-immigrant forces to better target undocumented populations.

Several national Latino organizations have criticized the proposed boycott and, like GALEO in Georgia, are mobilizing to make sure the Hispanic community is counted.

"A boycott is an irresponsible way to address the issue of comprehensive immigration reform," Gonzalez said. "Too much is at stake with the census to boycott it as a way to draw attention to immigration reform."

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