Shoddy Census, or Empowered Immigration?

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.  Leviticus 19:33-34

What do you think of the Census?

We’ve all been inundated with countless billboards, letters and warnings of scams (one includes someone knocking on your door, another involved a phone call asking for the SSN and other identity theft info — even though the Census is just a form you mail back). Sometimes I think the government is just too interested to know who’s out there. But then I realize the information is so that the government can help whoever is in the country, wherever they are. And this is a key question in order to receive that help:

How can you know if people exist unless they show themselves to exist? You cannot.

Demanding fair treatment by showing oneself to exist as a human being is one of the reasons I would pose to supplement Beverly Pratt’s blog article for Sojourners about six months ago. In fact, it might be the only necessary reason for engaging in the Census. Why? Imagine, for a moment, that you are in the United States during the 19th Century. Slavery is a burning issue, of course, but you find yourself among the William Lloyd Garrisons of your time, wondering, “What do the slaves themselves have to say?” And you hear in response from an unnamed man, as you walk down a crowded Ohio street that day in 1780, “I don’t hear them saying anything; they must not have anything to say.” You asked this question because of a single, simple, but completely hidden, fact: slaves aren’t listened to, because they don’t exist in the halls of political conversation.

Once again, some of those in Christianity are encouraging a behavior counter-productive to the heart of their cause: Latino boycott of the U.S. Census. I agree that more “public media sensationalism” is exactly what this country does not need. I agree that boycotting has, in the past, been a productive means used by minorities needing status and voice. I even agree that boycotting may work in this situation.

But how can you ensure a voice most effectively? I do not believe that is by removing yourself from the platform to exercise that voice. Like Platt, I see that removal from public representation only hinders the perception of illegal immigrants. But without making yourself known as a citizen in the country, there is no way for those who cannot speak to be represented by you. Did you know that as late as 1862, the Confiscation Acts formed by the Union States declared and treated slaves as mere property? Why? Because they were nameless, faceless, numberless… an untouchable and incalculable mass of “cause” and “pity-taking”. It was only after Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and the like started becoming visible, audible, knowable, personal, that the slave cause took a radical shift and led to the authorization of the freeing of slaves as people in the Emancipation Proclamation.

Fellow Christian soul, will you not see for a moment that encouraging visibility is actually the quickest antiviral for the spread of diseases known as Apathy, Easy Indecision, and Perpetual Status Quo? Without representing yourselves, my dear Latino siblings, you will merely become part of the “Immigration Illusion”: the ghost tactic conveyed by those who rely on ignorance to continue injustice. The reason why boycotts used to work for our African-American siblings is because they did so when no one could escape their presence; the meetings were taken to marches, town halls, homes and libraries, pubs and sanctuaries. If you boycott the Census, you will be doing only that: removing yourselves from the record. And no citizen can listen to you later, when you chose not to exist as a citizen yourself now.

It is true that stats alone will never convince an elite class with decision-making power. But the stats can be portals of visibility and personal testament. And that is what will spur a just policy towards “illegal” immigration. Without a portrait, without a chief example, how will the community itself emerge strong and empowered? Fill in the blank: “It will n_t.” Let’s stand up for ourselves; we exist. We  deserve to be acknowledged, counted, gently unified and humbly dignified.

I’d like to close with a prayer in a recent “Verse & Voice” from Sojourners:

“Break our hearts over what breaks yours, Lord. For our immigrant brothers and sisters, who endure hostility and marginalization simply on the basis of their ethnicity or immigration status, we ask your strength. And for those of us who call ourselves followers of the welcoming Christ, grant us the strength to stand with and for those who live as equals before you, even if they are not equals before the law or equals in the eyes of some. Amen.”


P.S. — Just in case you want to take some political action for immigration reform, Church World Service has a way for you to do that right here.