If I Were Illegal

By Miguel Perez

February 15, 2010 7 min read

Put yourself in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant — constantly looking over your shoulder, aware that you could be arrested and deported at any time, going out every morning knowing that you might not be able to return to your family at night.

And then walk in those shoes for a while, feeling society and the economy slamming doors in your face, dealing with bigots who treat you as if you were an "alien" from another planet, watching the politicians who gave you hope reneging on their promises to make you legal.

Would that motivate you to do "your civic duty" by participating in the U.S. census? Why would you care?

Let's say you believe all the government propaganda assuring you that you won't be arrested and deported because the Census Bureau will not give your personal information to immigration authorities. Still, why should you take a risk — even if minimal? What's in it for you?

Many immigrant and Latino community activists would tell you that your participation in the census is crucial, that essential federal funding, community services and political representation would be lost if you were not to be counted. And they would be absolutely right. If you are not counted, your state, city and community are likely to lose some money and political clout.

But still, you would have to ask, "Why would I care?"

For you and some 11 million other undocumented immigrants in this country, federal funding, community services and political representation have been practically nonexistent. How can they threaten people with losing benefits they never have had? When they warn you about the benefits you could lose if you failed to participate in the census, you figure they must be talking about someone else!

Besides, if you are an undocumented immigrant and your participation in the census would bring your community more funds to hire more cops to arrest more undocumented immigrants, why wouldn't you stay away from the census? As long as local communities are deputizing cops to enforce federal immigration laws, why would you want to help your community get federal money to hire more cops?

In fact, in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant, you might have planned to file your census forms in the same trash can where you dump your junk mail.

But imagine what could happen if someone came along and showed you how your fear and/or apathy could be turned into a political force. What if someone showed you how you could gain political leverage — for the first time in the many years you may have been an undocumented immigrant — by boycotting the 2010 census?

Well, if you're standing in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant, you should know that someone already has done just that. It's the Rev. Miguel Rivera. As chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders — a group representing 20,000 evangelical churches in 34 states — Rivera is leading an organized boycott of the 2010 census by undocumented immigrants. Its purpose is to pressure federal lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform and create a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. He says the census boycott can be used to strike back against the politicians who fail to deliver on their promises to reform immigration.

As Rivera has traveled across the country, he has convinced many Latino church and community leaders that the census gives undocumented immigrants unprecedented power and that they need to exert it now by boycotting the national head count that begins April 1. He knows that some sacrifice is involved, that boycotting the census will hurt immigrant communities. But when the census is the only weapon left with which to fight, Rivera is urging you to use it.

Unless the president and Congress at least stop deportations and grant undocumented immigrants some kind of temporary protective status that allows them to stay and work here legally, Rivera says thousands of census forms will be "either thrown to the trash can or burned in public display defiance (against) members of Congress that are not concerned about the harmful effects on Latino families, schoolchildren and the elderly, for the lack of a humane comprehensive immigration reform."

Rivera's radical position has put him at odds with many Latino and immigrant community activists — his allies on many other issues — who say it is downright irresponsible to call on anyone to boycott the census. Some have said they would agree to a peace plan — suggested in a previous column of mine — whereby punishing the politicians would be postponed from the census to the midterm elections.

But if you listen with the ears of an undocumented immigrant, Rivera must be making a lot of sense at this point, especially when more and more politicians appear to be backing down from their pro-immigrant rhetoric of years passed. Instead of choosing between a census boycott by undocumented immigrants and election-time punishment for anti-immigrant politicians, perhaps we need both.

For now, while the government spends millions in a publicity campaign to promote census participation in the immigrant communities, Rivera's "legalization before enumeration" campaign has been spreading like wildfire through immigrant communities, where many people are feeling empowered for the first time. Across the country, immigrants are vowing to discard census forms and keep their doors closed when census workers come knocking. "It's a matter of principle," they tell you, repeating what they have learned from Rivera. "You can't count me only when it is convenient for the politicians," they say. "If you want to count me, I have to count all the time."

I know. Some of my readers will respond to this column by noting that if they were here illegally, they would kick their own butts back across the border. But c'mon, that's not putting yourself in their shoes! That's not making an effort to understand why they are here, willing to go through the hardship and humiliation of the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Remember your immigrant ancestors? Put yourself in their shoes! You might recognize that — from the Native American perspective — none of them was legal.

To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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