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Groups debate undocumented immigrants’ role in census

Chicago residents discuss undocumented immigrants involvement in the census. Photo by Lizeth Cazares/MEDILLThis article originally appeared in the Medill News Service.

A set of questions is pitting immigrant groups against each other.

Unsatisfied with stalled reform efforts to grant legal residency status to some undocumented residents, the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders is asking immigrants to protest the census. But their attempt to use the Census as a bargaining chip is not sitting well with other groups. Not participating, they argue, will do more harm than good.

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund has been working with other Latino groups in the Midwest trying to reach out to undocumented immigrants and people with limited English language skills. If they are undercounted, MALDEF states, they could be under represented in the political process and could lose social services.

In Chicago, census officials are also pushing for all to participate. Chicago regional U.S. Census Bureau information specialist Steve Laue said they are sending out more bilingual forms than in previous years.

“The U.S. census is encouraging complete cooperation,” he said. “We count all residents of the country regardless of their  status.” Indeed, the Bureau is required to count everyone and residents who don’t participate are fined $100.

While many are pushing undocumented immigrants to take part, coalition president Rev. Miguel Rivera says immigration reform legislation is what is important.           

“I challenge them to relate to the pain and suffering of broken homes, the incarceration of mothers with their children or the deportation of a pastor who has established a proven and beneficial ministry for the spiritual needs of a whole community,” he said in a press release.

For some Chicago residents this issue comes down to one thing— lack of information.

As part of the Illinois Humanities Council weekly Café Society, local residents discussed the issue Wednesday and some complained that they feared the government would use census information against undocumented immigrants.           

“I don’t think I would trust the government if I was undocumented,” said Mike Staffeldt who lives in the northside.

But Charlotte King, who led the discussion, thinks that people, should disregard their fears and consider the advantage that could come from providing the government of an accurate count..

“It’s one system in place to make a lot of change and it’s a way to have people visible that weren’t,” King said.