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Press Release - projo.com
The Providence Journal

Some immigrants in Central Falls are afraid to give info to the government

08:49 AM EST on Monday, November 9, 2009
By Karen Lee Ziner
Journal Staff Writer

The Rev. Eliseo Nogueras, an official with the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, is calling for undocumented immigrants to boycott the census. The Providence Journal / Kris Craig

CENTRAL FALLS –– On any given street corner of this struggling city, you might hear people speaking English, Spanish, Creole, K’iche, or Portuguese, lending truth to a sign at the city’s border, “Welcome to Central Falls — The Whole World in One Square Mile.” Until recently, Central Falls held a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” claim as the smallest, most densely populated city in the country.

But the fact is, no one knows how many people live here.

For many reasons — language and cultural barriers, poverty, high mobility and government mistrust, to name a few — only half the city’s residents mailed in their census forms in 2000. Despite extensive government follow-up, community leaders say anecdotal evidence suggests that far more than 18,928 residents live in the city.

Now the Census Bureau is redoubling its efforts, paying extra attention to Central Falls, parts of Providence and other “hard to count” communities across the country as it gears up for its once-a-decade census in 2010.

Much is at stake: a share of $400 billion in federal monies for schools, infrastructure, transportation, health care and more across the country, as well as congressional representation, and state and local redistricting.

Census 2010 is expected to show a significant jump in the Hispanic population — already the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. “This could be a re-defining moment for the demographics of the United States,” says Anna Cano-Morales, a community activist and one of three co-chairs of the Rhode Island Latino Complete Count Committee, which is working with the Census Bureau office in Rhode Island.

Central Falls “is quite the mixture,” she said. “You can find a little bit of everything. It is kind of a litmus test — it’s a lively experiment that goes on in 1.2 square miles; sometimes we choose to learn from that experiment and sometimes we don’t. This time, we hope we do.”

Central Falls, in microcosm, reflects the country’s changing demographics: Latinos make up roughly half the population. Central Falls is also the Rhode Island focus in a controversy over whether undocumented residents should cooperate with the Census — despite a constitutional mandate that everyone be counted, no matter their legal status.

A Latino evangelical group, the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders [CONLAMIC] is urging undocumented residents to boycott Census 2010 as leverage for immigration reform. A Rhode Island minister who is CONLAMIC’s regional representative, has been spreading that controversial message here.

And until a Senate vote blocked them on Thursday, Republican senators David Vitter of Louisiana, and Bob Bennett of Utah, had tried for months to stop the Census from going forward unless the survey included a question about citizenship status. Critics had accused Vitter of trying to use immigration as “a wedge issue” to ruin the Census.

But fear remains high among immigrants — documented and undocumented alike –– that the government will use Census information against them, including through increased raids or harassment by law enforcement. That fear exists, even in “mixed-status” families, despite assurances that Census forms do not now ask a person’s legal status. And by law, personal Census information is not shared with any other government agencies.

“The bottom line is that right now, the Constitution demands us to count everyone, and that law was upheld in the Supreme Court and upheld by presidential administrations of both parties,” says Kathleen Ludgate, Boston regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We are bound by a strict law, Title 13 of the United States Code, to protect confidential information,” Ludgate said. “This law has been tested and proven strong through the courts, so that federal state or local agencies or law enforcement officials are not able to get individual information.”

As the clock ticks toward next March when the Census Bureau sends out its questionnaires, the Latino Complete Count Committee (one of several complete count committees in the state, and one of hundreds throughout the country) has launched a grass-roots effort focusing on Central Falls and areas of Providence: Olneyville, Broad Street, Elmwood, the West End, and Washington Park.

They are working with so-called “trusted partners:” social-service agencies; advocacy groups; faith-based organizations; and respected people in the Hispanic community to ensure that as many people as possible get counted in 2010.

MANY FACTORS make a community hard to count. For instance, Hurricane Katrina displaced people and destroyed neighborhoods, increasing an already difficult counting task in the New Orleans area, said Ludgate, the Boston regional Census Bureau director. She said rural locations and “fear and mistrust of the federal government” also make some Indian reservations hard to count.

In Central Falls, drive or walk through its warren of one-way streets and it’s easy to see some of the challenges.

Colombian, Mexican, Dominican and Guatemalan restaurants and businesses along Dexter and Broad streets reflect the city’s rich ethnic mix — and its language barriers. Spanish-language papers rival English-language dailies on the newsstands.

Condemned housing pocks the city, and mills are shuttered. High unemployment — 15.1 percent in September — and foreclosures have spawned displacement, transiency, and homelessness. Many people have “doubled up” in houses and apartments.

Some factors are less visible yet well documented.

Governor Carcieri’s 2008 executive order cracking down on illegal immigration exacerbated fear among legal and undocumented immigrants alike, according to a study committee he appointed. Federal immigration raids here and in Massachusetts also heightened anxieties, including within “mixed status” families of illegal and legal immigrants.

Dr. Antonio Barajas, president of the Rhode Island Mexican-American Association, and a Central Falls resident, said of dozens of people he has spoken with, “I would say 99 percent of those people are against participating. They don’t trust the government anymore, and they feel threatened.” He adds, “Most people are saying, ‘I’m keeping my doors closed and not opening it unless I know who is on the other side.’?”

At the Caribbean Multi-Services agency on Broad Street, owner Jose Torres watches Census 2010 public-service announcements on Spanish-language networks. “I hear on TV, it doesn’t matter whether they are legal or not legal, it’s not going to affect them. The government is not going to go after them,” said Torres.

Some of his immigrant customers who come in to buy money orders or send faxes are unfamiliar with the Census. “When I explain it, they say, ‘No, that could get me in trouble.’?” But Torres, of Puerto Rico, advises them to comply. “If they’re legal or illegal, I think it’s necessary,” he said, “so that we know how many people are around.”

THE REV. ELISEO NOGUERAS, however, sees it differently. As regional vice president for the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders [CONLAMIC], he has advocated that undocumented immigrants boycott the Census. Mr. Nogueras is also president of the Hispanic Ministerial Association of Rhode Island, and pastor of Casa de Oracion Getsemani in Pawtucket.

CONLAMIC, the largest Latino evangelical pastor’s advocacy group in the country, pushes its slogan: "Antes de contar, nos tienen que legalizer.” [“Legalize us before you count us.”]

Mr. Nogueras said the church must bring forth “the moral argument.” The coalition is using the boycott “as a tool to promote and push for immigration reform.”

He said, “On one side, you’re saying you should be counted, and [on] the other side, you don’t have any rights and you should leave [the country], so it’s kind of a double message. But I can understand what some of the detractors of the boycott are saying, that if you’re not counted, then cities and towns might lose some of their funding.”

Mr. Nogueras acknowledged that he has been criticized for his stance. He is also in an uncomfortable position as chairman of the board of Progreso Latino, a major Rhode Island social-services/advocacy organization that is working with the Latino Complete Count Committee.

“The board of Progreso has moved to support the Census, and even though I’m the chair, the majority rules in any organization and I will back Progreso in their decisions, although I may have a different opinion,” Mr. Nogueras said.

[On Friday, Progreso Latino’s interim director, George L. Ortiz Jr., announced his resignation. Neither Ortiz nor Mr. Nogueras could be reached for comment. Story A6.]

But Pablo Rodriguez, co-chair of the Latino Complete Count Committee, and well-known political activist, calls the boycott “foolish.”

Rodriguez came up with the committee’s slogan, “¡Si No Nos Cuentan, No Contamos!” [“If we are not counted, we don’t count,”] featured on buttons and pins and T-shirts being distributed in Rhode Island’s Latino communities. He wears it everywhere.

He said an inaccurate count in Central Falls — “arguably one of the most densely populated cities in the United States, which has the largest percentage of Latinos in Rhode Island and such a precarious tax base” — could be disastrous.

ON OCT. 21, Rodriguez devoted his daily morning Latino Public program to the urgency of Census participation, and the fierce opposition to the CONLAMIC boycott in Rhode Island and around the country.

Squeezed into the tiny studio were Marta Martinez, Latino outreach coordinator for the Census Bureau in Providence; representatives of the Central Falls School Department, schoolchildren from the Segue Institute for Learning charter school, and others.

One guest, Ivette Luna of the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund, said a boycott “is going to set us back. To get real immigration reform, we need to organize. We’re undercounted. [If the boycott has any effect], those resources we would have received — we wouldn’t. It doesn’t just affect the undocumented, it affects everyone.”

State Rep. Gus Silva, D-Central Falls, said repercussions of an undercount could include “people not getting food stamps, not getting enough money for teachers, not getting enough to maintain buildings ... [not enough for] after-school programs, health care — everything would be cut. Especially in these tough times, we need to fight for whatever we can get, and put all that money back into our city.”

Prominent national Latino organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and the National Council of La Raza, are advocating against the boycott and spreading the “complete count” message.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, calls the CONLAMIC boycott “fundamentally irresponsible, and I would even characterize [it] as immoral.”

“In the first censuses, African-Americans were considered sixty percent of a person, and Native Americans were considered zero percent of a person,” said Vargas in a phone interview. “We have corrected that over our history, but for anyone to encourage people not to participate, they’re suggesting they make themselves zero percent of a person under our Constitution.” He added, “The harm that comes from an undercount is permanent for ten years.”

Vargas, who recently spoke at the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee annual fundraiser, said, “We are witness to a historic moment in the evolution of Latino community nationally … In order for Latinos to have fair representation in Congress and these states to get their due, participation in the Census is absolutely essential.”

MARTINEZ, the local Latino outreach specialist, said she wants to ensure that the Census message “is loud and clear and in the language most understood by many of our Rhode Island Latinos.”

Fairs, festivals, musical events, and multi-language outreach efforts are planned. A Census bus tour will visit Rhode Island in February.

Public officials and schools are being asked to help. Mayor Charles Moreau said, “The city has to provide to all its residents, irrespective of their citizenship status. Some of these services are eligible for various federal grants based on our population count. It is thus important that our population be counted correctly.”

The Census Bureau is distributing explanatory materials for school children nationwide, with the expectation they will communicate its importance to their parents.

Central Falls School Superintendent Frances Gallo said when she was first asked about cooperating with the Census, “I was struggling as to whether or not I would, until I read the material and saw that it was a count, and understood it had nothing to do with immigration. I felt schools could sponsor it with integrity without feeling we were placing families in danger. That’s not my role.”

Gallo added, “You hear, ‘I’m going to fill out a form for the federal government, and uh-oh, no way, I’m not going to lead my family down a path of trouble.’?” But Gallo said, “It’s about being counted, it’s important to the nation, and the state and we should support it.”

The Latino Complete Count Committee’s Pablo Rodriguez said, “It is going to take every person of credibility in the community, every leader, every radio talk show, every newspaper, every teacher … It will take the entire community to rally … To let people know it is safe, you have nothing to fear and the consequences of not participating are much more dire.”