Group wants more Midwest Latinos to answer Census

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 | 6:56 p.m. CDT; updated 7:23 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 25, 2010

CHICAGO  — A legal advocacy group launched an education and awareness campaign Wednesday encouraging Latinos in 11 Midwest states to participate in the 2010 Census.

The campaign by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Chicago — including fliers in Spanish and English and door-to-door visits — is one among several advocacy groups nationwide working to ensure minorities are accurately counted.

"This is one of the most important civil rights issues," said Elisa Alfonso, a director of the group's Midwest office in Chicago. "This is what gives you access to voting and funding."

The states involved in the program are Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Similar efforts are planned for other U.S. regions later this year.

The Census, which is mandated by the U.S. Constitution every 10 years, asks questions about race, age, gender and the number of people living in each household. It is used to decide how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed and how congressional districts are drawn.

Still, challenges exist in reaching out to Latinos, Alfonso said. Some immigrants are wary of providing detailed personal information to the government because they fear doing so could lead to inquiries on immigration status for themselves or family members.

The Census does not ask about immigration status or citizenship.

"The Census Bureau is sending out messages, but it's still a government organization, and you have people who are distrustful of it," she said.

In its campaign, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is stressing the confidentiality of the data and encouraging people to mail back completed forms early. Their slogan for the effort is "Hagase Contar," or "Make Yourself Count."

A bright yellow flier from the group reads, "by law, the Census Bureau cannot share your answers with anyone, including federal, state and local agencies. This includes immigration agencies."

The group is focusing its efforts on suburbs where there has been a surge in the number of Latinos and is working with community groups that include immigrant rights coalitions, health organizations and gay rights groups because married same-sex couples will be counted in the 2010 Census.

Immigrants rights groups and the Government Accountability Office have said the Census needs to do better at counting minorities.

Census officials insist they're making efforts. For the first time with the 2010 Census, the agency is sending out Spanish questionnaires to about 13 million households.


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