SALINAS: Stand up and be counted in Census 2010

If you haven't already filled it out and mailed it, don't wait any longer.

Find that envelop with the 2010 census questionnaire on the kitchen counter, the desk or wherever you put it, complete it and put it in the mail.

Today's the census deadline — so stand up and be counted.

The census count probably is the single most important project on which our government embarks every 10 years. And this time around, the U.S. Census Bureau has launched the most extensive and expensive campaign in its history, with one purpose: to count every man, woman and child who resides within its borders. Supporting the bureau, several civic groups and media organizations have launched massive awareness campaigns of their own.

Yet there are those who are considering not participating. In some cases, it's the result of apathy; in others, it's because of a lack of information and a lack of understanding of the process.

Then there are many in the Latino community who have fallen victim to the scare tactics of a few well-intended but misguided community leaders, who have led them to believe that not participating in the census will put pressure on Congress to pass immigration-reform legislation.

Not only is that misinformation, but it's counterproductive. The census is not a political tool you can use to influence legislation, although the results can give a community more political clout. The census simply is a way for our government to know how many people live in the country, to know where they live and to be able to categorize them by age, gender, race and ethnic origin to determine how government funds should be distributed in each city and state. Not participating will affect that distribution, and communities that are undercounted will pay the price.

Even though we saw dramatic growth in the Latino population during the 2000 census, Latinos were severely undercounted. It is believed that many feared that the information they provided would come back to haunt them. That fear seems to be present again.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that the majority of Latinos, 69 percent, do not think the census is used to determine whether someone is in the country illegally, but 21 percent wrongly believe their information is shared with immigration authorities.

Dispelling myths about the census has been one of the major challenges for all those involved. Some say only U.S. citizens are obligated to fill out the form. That's a myth. The census, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, states that every person is to be counted.

Others are worried about confidentiality and who will have access to their answers.

Here's how it works: According to the Census Bureau, when it receives your form, it is processed electronically and your name is removed. Your answers go into statistical groupings, and the answers never identify you or your family. The answers are not shared with any other government agency — not the Internal Revenue Service, not Immigration and Customs Enforcement or even the president of the United States.

State by state, all politicians are pushing for a more accurate count this time around. The census data will aid in the redistricting process and surely could impact the upcoming midterm election.

They also want to make sure the $400 billion disbursed yearly by the federal government, based on the census, is allocated fairly, where the money is needed. That money goes to pay for services such as Medicaid, hospitals, schools, highways, roads, senior citizen centers and other community needs.

For the first time in census history, the questionnaire is available in Spanish and 59 other languages. The effort is there, and the payoff at the end of the census count may reflect a nation of even greater diversity. We are lucky to live in a democracy, and the census is the one of the strongest symbols of our democratic process.