If Census Bureau estimates are accurate, there are about 47 million Latinos in the United States, accounting for about 15 percent of the total U.S. population.
And, as comedian George Lopez explains, "those are just the ones who answer the knock at the door." Here's something that is no joke. The 2010 Census is still six months away, but already the national count is stirring a lot of controversy in the Latino community. It's also exposing a contradiction on the part of America's largest minority.
Some Latino activists, including the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders and the Mexican American Political Association, are foolishly urging that Latinos boycott the census as a way of protesting White House foot-dragging on immigration reform and what they consider the Obama administration's heavy-handed enforcement measures. Open-border advocates and immigrant proponents assumed they were getting a kinder, gentler approach to the immigration quandary when a Democrat was elected president. Guess again. They wound up disappointed when Barack Obama virtually Xeroxed George W. Bush's immigration policy — i.e., building fences, launching work-site raids and deporting illegal immigrants. All the news out of the administration these days is about how it is improving enforcement — nothing about a specific plan to achieve comprehensive reform.
But being disappointed is no excuse for being self-destructive.
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Boycotting the census is a horrible idea that would only further disenfranchise the Latino community by, among other things, shortchanging it in the redistricting process that will take place in state legislatures following the survey.
Yet even as a boycott is threatened, other activists have also been trying to use the census as a ploy to stop or at least temporarily stall immigration raids. For the last several months, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund and others have been quietly suggesting that the Commerce Department — the government agency responsible for administering the national survey — ask the Homeland Security Department to halt the workplace raids so as to defuse fear in the immigrant community and increase participation.
That's exactly what Census officials did to prepare for the 2000 survey, and immigration officials then honored the request.
This time things are different. The Commerce Department said recently that it would not follow its own precedent but would instead maintain a hands-off approach to the immigration issue. Commerce spokesman Nick Kimball told The Associated Press that Census officials would not ask that large-scale immigration raids be stopped.
"Neither the Commerce Department nor the Census Bureau will ask DHS to refrain from exercising their lawful authority," Kimball said.
Yet, the department claims it is still committed to an accurate tally of all U.S. residents, including illegal immigrants, when the process begins April 1.
"Our job is to count every resident once, and in the right place, and that's what we do," Kimball said. "All the information the Census Bureau collects is protected by law and will not be shared with any other agency."
This is another wake-up call for Latino immigrant activists who naively assumed that the Obama administration was going to be a natural ally.
Still, the Census Bureau folks got it exactly right. They should stay out of immigration enforcement. And I say that not just because I support work-site raids as a legitimate tool to root out illegal immigrants and discourage employers from hiring them. Rather, unless absolutely necessary, one government agency shouldn't interfere with the operations of another. In this case, Homeland Security officials have enough on their plate without having to worry about extending professional courtesy to the Commerce Department.
Here's the contradiction: By condemning the raids as something that could dampen census participation, the activists implicitly claim that getting an accurate count matters a great deal to them and to the Latino community as a whole. Otherwise, why would they be worried about work-site raids discouraging people from participating in the count? But if that's true, how can other Latino activists be so reckless and cavalier as to support a boycott of the census altogether — even as an act of protest? Obviously, some of these Latino advocates don't value the process nearly as much as they pretend to.
Or maybe they just put a higher value on getting their way at all costs. This is a bad strategy that makes those who employ it look selfish and petty. People like that are often just ignored. And that doesn't get the activists any closer to the respect they crave.
Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE