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The Strange Bedfellows of the Census Boycott

03/18/2010 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the wonders of modern society is how even minor controversies can snowball into intense political and sociological debates where, apparently, the future of the country hangs in the balance. Really, even Halloween costumes are enough to create verbal fisticuffs.

That's why I'm not surprised that the 2010 census has people tossing around accusations of nefarious intentions, with counter-accusations of idiocy flying back. The fear and hatred of this tedious government exercise has a long history. And with the loathing of the current administration so potent among right-wingers, it's no wonder that the tinfoil-hat crowd insists that filling out the form will somehow end up with you in a government-run gulag.

But I expected the neocons to get upset over the census. What surprised me is that some Latino groups have joined people like noted nutjob Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in calling for a boycott.

The thinking among some Hispanic organizations is that skipping the census is a great way to protest the lack of immigration reform. The Rev. Miguel Rivera, head of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, says that his group has talked 2.5 million Hispanics into refusing to be counted. Rivera hopes that some states will lose representation in Congress due to the undercounting. He believes that, "If politicians don't see the need for immigration reform, then we don't need those politicians anyway."

I can't be the only one who sees the ineffectiveness of this take-my-ball-and-go-home approach. The census only reapportions congressional delegation. It doesn't add or eliminate anything. So I don't see how giving, say, Kansas more votes at the expense of California is going to speed up immigration reform. If anything, this strategy increases the odds of a spectacular backfire.

Then there are those who don't necessarily want to boycott the census, just alter it beyond recognition. A Republican-sponsored proposal calls for a freeze on Census Bureau funds if it doesn't reprint its forms to ask respondents if they are citizens. I, for one, can't imagine who they are targeting or attempting to intimidate with such a question.

We'll ignore the fact that the party of fiscal responsibility is demanding that the government throw away the 400 million forms that have already been printed and start over, at no small expense. Instead, let me point out that presidential administrations of both parties have repeatedly agreed to count everybody, not just citizens. It's pretty much settled law.

I'm also wondering about those conservatives who supposedly want government off our collective backs, and think it's unconstitutional for the census to ask how many bathrooms you have. But it is OK for the bureau to throw in a last-second intrusive question designed specifically to frighten people. I see; it all makes sense now.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit that I was once one of those dreaded Census workers (it was a temp job on my summer break from college). I spent three months going door to door in the most wretched parts of my hometown, asking bored or annoyed residents how many people lived in their crumbling shanty of an apartment.

It was a pretty miserable experience, but it paid better than fast food. At no point did I swell with pride that I was helping continue the vital work of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, etc. Neither did I worry if I was assisting the government with its final preparations for the mass arrest of citizens. It was all rather dull.

I miss those days.