Latino Church Leaders Divided on Census Boycott


Latino evangelical leaders, who wield tremendous clout in immigrant communities, are sharply divided on the 2010 Census.

The rift developed earlier this month after one influential group of pastors said it would call for a census boycott among undocumented immigrants as a bargaining chip in their demands for comprehensive immigration reform.

"The boycott idea's spreading like fire," said Rev. Miguel Ángel Rivera, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, or CONLAMIC for its Spanish acronym. "It's the only thing that will make politicians sit up and listen."

News of the boycott has certainly reached CONLAMIC Vice-chair Rev. Kittim Silva, who heads the Iglesia Pentecostal de Jesucristo in Queens, the New York City borough renowned for its ethnic diversity. Though he acknowledges initial misgivings about the boycott, which he knew would be controversial, he says he'll back it.

"As a pastor I communicate the position CONLAMIC's taken on the issues. I have to wear that hat," said Rev. Silva, sitting in his office desk at the brick-walled church he's led since 1983.

Other pastors not affiliated with CONLAMIC disagree with the boycott. "It's unfair to collapse the census into immigration reform," said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, senior pastor of the Lamb's Church in Manhattan and director of the Latino Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. "There's a large number of Latino evangelicals who understand the positive impact" of the census.

Though President Barack Obama's team has pledged to advance immigration reform in 2009, and senior New York U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has launched hearings on how to make it happen, CONLAMIC worries immigration reform might ultimately be pushed to the back burner by the crowded presidential agenda.

For decades the mantra of Latino civil rights activists with respect to the census has been "stand up and be counted," regardless of one's immigration status.

But the pastors supporting the boycott say undocumented immigrants, perhaps the most disenfranchised and vulnerable class of U.S. residents, will be heard with more clarity this time if they opt out of the count.

If the boycott catches on, it'll have a major impact. It's estimated by the Pew Research Center that one in every six Latinos belongs to an evangelical church. So, assuming the proportion's roughly the same for undocumented Latino immigrants, who number 10 million, then that's 1.6 million people who may hear of CONLAMIC's boycott, which is being widely discussed in evangelical circles and Latino media.

The U.S. Constitution mandates that the census count everyone living in the country every 10 years, whether they're U.S.-born, or they immigrated here legally or illegally. The results serve to distribute Congressional seats to the 50 states, slice the pie of government services, and divvy up the big prize: $300 billion in federal funds to states, counties and municipalities. The Census Bureau reassures undocumented immigrants that their personal information, including immigration status, is protected by federal law.

Rev. Rivera believes it's fundamentally unfair for undocumented immigrants to help their communities gain political and economic clout through the census, only to then be treated as second-class citizens, denied government services and be subjected to ceaseless raids and law enforcement harassment.

"If they're good enough to be counted, then they should be legalized," he said. "It's immoral and dishonest to use them in order to slake our communities' thirst for funds."

But other Latino evangelical leaders say a boycott, however well-intentioned, would do more harm than good.

The Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., identified by Time Magazine as one of the country's 25 most influential evangelicals, says he respects Rivera, who's "earned his stripes" fighting hardline immigration laws in far-flung state and locales. But he argues a census boycott would disempower local Latino communities.

"I think the best idea is to participate, and find another way to fight the good fight on immigration," said Cortés, who heads the faith-based group Esperanza USA.

He says he hopes the boycott will be called off, and says he plans to ask CONLAMIC leader Rev. Rivera for a meeting in order to negotiate a solution to their differences on the census, a deal that might satisfy both their priorities. Cortés plans to issue a statement in favor of the census at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., in mid-June.

Over the last several years, CONLAMIC, which claims some 16,000 member churches (with an average parish membership of 60) in more than 30 states, has grown increasingly aggressive in its immigration-related activism.

Undocumented immigrants account for 17 percent of the pastors and 38 percent of the evangelical faithful represented by the coalition, according to CONLAMIC.

The group helped sue Riverside, N.J., for its legal clampdown on undocumented immigrants and helped organize pro-immigrant marches in hotspots like Oklahoma, where voters passed a hardline law against illegal immigration in 2007.

One of Rev. Rivera's concerns about the census is that state and local officials often point to census results showing the presence of undocumented immigrants and then exploit the issue politically, rallying support for get-tough laws like those passed in Oklahoma, Riverside, N.J., and countless other jurisdictions.

Rev. Kittim Silva, the pastor in Queens, finds himself in a particularly awkward spot in terms of preaching against the census. He's allowed the federal government to use his church as a training site for Census 2000 survey-takers, who then fanned out into the ethnically diverse surrounding neighborhoods to count Caribbean, South Asian and Latino immigrants. He says he'll offer the church as a training site again ahead of the 2010 count.

He's also a fan of tracing his family tree in Puerto Rico on genealogical Web sites that rely on old census data and provide online facsimiles of original census forms. He wants to emphasize that he's generally supportive of the census, considers it a valuable tool when used right, and emphasizes that CONLAMIC will counsel legal residents and citizens in its churches to collaborate with the census in any way they can.

But he says he'll support the boycott with regards to undocumented immigrants in the hopes that it will advance the cause of an immigration law that will offer them legal status and a path to citizenship. He likened the boycott to a stone thrown in the direction of the powers that be, so that they'll be jolted into action.

One of Rev. Silva's churchgoers, a 54-year-old undocumented immigrant who has been in the country eight years, told a visitor to the church that he'd be reluctant to cooperate with census personnel if they asked about his immigration status: "I don't think I'd be comfortable doing that."

If he wanted, Rev. Silva might use his considerable influence to change the minds of all his apprehensive undocumented faithful. But if the boycott remains on the table, he'll instead counsel them to go uncounted.

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