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Counting Immigrants Key for Communities

With a little over six months until the 2010 Census, outreach has already begun to ensure as complete a count as possible. A lot’s at stake.

Every ten years, the Census Bureau has the daunting task of counting everyone--no matter their legal status--living in the United States and its territories, as mandated by the Constitution. 2010 is one of those years.

Although the Census Bureau protects respondents’ privacy and does not inquire about residency status, many unauthorized immigrants are fearful that information they provide may be used by law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) against them. It’s well known that the census undercounts minorities and low-income people disproportionately, and great pains are taken to reach out to these communities to gain trust and minimize the undercount. Nevertheless, immigrants with legal status are more likely to fill out Census questionnaires than those who are living here illegally and fear of government recriminations. (Never mind that refusing to answer basic census questions is itself illegal.)

Certainly, that fear could be minimized by immigration reform, if it were to include a means for unauthorized immigrants who meet certain requirements (work history, background check, basic English skills, fines and fees) to obtain legal status. Those who sign up would thus already be registered with the government as someone who was living in this country without authorization. They would have less to lose by filling out their Census questionnaire. And with one of the shortest forms in its history -- just ten questions per person -- the Census Bureau is hoping to boost response rates.

Cities, counties, suburbs, and towns care deeply about having all of their immigrants counted--if for no other reason than the money involved. Census data are used to allocate federal funds to states and localities, to the tune of $377 billion in 2007. This works out to about $1,250 per person counted by Census. The money goes toward services that benefit all residents such as hospitals, schools, fire departments, social services, job training, and infrastructure projects.

In addition, businesses rely on demographic and economic data collected from Census to make investment decisions. For cash-strapped local governments, especially those facing the challenges of recent and rapid immigrant growth, getting an accurate count of their residents is more critical than ever. And for those who argue that unauthorized immigrants are a net drain on local coffers, it’s a chance to make up some ground. 

It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of unauthorized immigrants were not counted in the 2000 Census. If they are undercounted at that rate in 2010, states and localities will miss out on $1.5 to $2.3 billion.

For the coming census, the risk of undercount for unauthorized immigrants is higher than in 2000. Since the last count, we have witnessed a dramatic upswing in the number of immigrants, both authorized and unauthorized, spreading out to new destinations within the U.S. This new geography of immigration, together with increased enforcement and acrimonious debates in recent years over immigration reform, suggest a higher level of isolation and anxiety among immigrants. Counting them will require extra effort from Census, local governments, and community groups, especially in light of the threat of a census boycott by a group of Latino religious leaders.

Long Island county executives Thomas Suozzi and Steve Levy--who have taken opposing public stances on dealing with illegal immigration to Nassau and Suffolk counties--support counting all residents in order to cover the costs that their governments bear to provide services. And in places like Florida, Arizona, the Gulf Coast, and New York City, leaders are working hard to reach out to their “hard to count” populations--including unauthorized immigrants--to make sure they will be counted.  

It’s worth the effort. Getting an accurate count of who lives in our cities, suburbs and counties benefits all residents. An immigration reform that makes that task easier would get us one step closer to ensuring that localities get the federal dollars they deserve.