A group of Latino clergymen launched what they call a “radical” campaign last April that encouraged undocumented immigrants to boycott the 2010 Census in an effort to speed the rewriting of national immigration policies.

Using the slogan, “Before you count us, you must legalize us!” organizers have spread their message everywhere from the pulpit to the airwaves. Their logic? The consequences of a population undercount – with the reductions in federal funding and representation that go along with it – would spur elected officials to expedite federal legislation to legalize undocumented immigrants.

Driven by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, the idea drew the ire of elected officials and Census advocates from Boston to Los Angeles. Opponents said the boycott is a misguided attempt at calling for immigration reform, arguing that undercounts would cause communities with large immigrant populations to lose federal funding and Congressional representation.

The movement claims to have convinced millions of undocumented immigrants – already a hard-to-reach group that fears participation could lead to deportation – not to participate in the Census, which will be taken next month. But it’s gained little traction in one immigrant-filled city: New York.

Although the group intended to launch the Census boycott in the five boroughs, several of the coalition’s leaders from New York voted to keep the boycott away. Perhaps that’s why the boycott wasn’t also promoted in other ethnic communities, despite organizers’ intention of reaching out to Asian and Arab groups as well.

Instead, local clergymen are encouraging the opposite: Full participation in the nationwide count, with some even partnering with the U.S. Census Bureau to offer educational outreach and training in their churches. “Here in New York City we have political leaders that really care about the undocumented people,” said the Rev. Domingo Vázquez, a director-at-large for the group and a Manhattan pastor.

Vázquez says it was not the group’s priority to pressure Mayor Bloomberg or the New York congressional delegation about reform, because many representatives are vocal advocates for changing federal immigration laws. Also, the city has adopted progressive policies that protect undocumented immigrants: one, signed in 2003, protects all New York residents from disclosing their immigration status when using vital city services, such as hospitals. The other, signed more recently in 2008, mandates that all city agencies provide public services in New York’s six most-spoken languages.

While undocumented immigrants are still ineligible for most federal welfare benefits, such as Medicaid, and often face harsh labor conditions in the city, there is still a feeling that illegal immigrants fare better in New York than they do in other parts of the country, said Angelo Falcón, president and co-founder of the Manhattan-based think tank, the National Institute for Latino Policy.

“In many instances, people who are undocumented are politically active and empowered in New York,” Falcón said.

Beyond the U.S. Census

With momentum around revamping the nation immigration’s policy gaining force, some immigrant advocates are contemplating what role the city will play in the debate, especially given New York’s history as the gateway to America.

President Obama announced during his recent State of the Union address that tackling federal immigration policy is on his 2010 agenda. (Though, as many interviewed for this article pointed out, it will need to wait until after some resolution of the debate on health care.) Obama and others use the term “comprehensive immigration reform” to describe a series of potential changes to policy that range from increasing border security and enforcement of immigration law, to determining how to adjust the status of the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. There is less debate about what needs fixing, generally speaking, than about how to do it.

Peter Salins, a senior fellow who writes on immigration for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, says for any federal immigration policy to gain popular support it must have two elements: a strong enforcement policy and at least partial legalization of the undocumented population. Immigration reform would benefit mayors of large cities such as New York, Salins says, because it would moot the current approach of turning a blind eye to immigration status.

“Mayor Bloomberg is eager to get out from under this difficult cloud and do it in the sunlight,” Salins said.

Bloomberg pledged last month to assemble a bipartisan, nationwide coalition of mayors to assist the President in building support for comprehensive immigration reform. Bloomberg himself has said he supports a path to legalization for all undocumented immigrants as well as increased visa quotas and a DNA- or fingerprint-based verification system that allows only legal immigrants to work in the United States.

Advocates for immigration reform are hopeful the mayor’s commitment to launching a national debate will be fruitful, given his credibility as both a successful businessman and an experienced mayor who has gained respect on both sides of the aisle.

“He can speak to both the challenges and the opportunities that we as a city have seen,” said Fatima Shama, the mayor’s Commissioner on Immigrant Affairs. He can also offer “the perspective of understanding the economic vitality that immigrants offer.”

Unlike other cities that in recent years have seen both their population and economy decline, New York has benefited significantly from immigrants and their labor. Since 1970, the city’s immigrant population has more than doubled to 3 million, while the native-born population declined by more than 1 million. Immigrants now represent more than a third of the city’s population, and four in 10 workers are legal immigrants, contributing $215 billion to the city’s economy in 2008. And this data from the Office of the State Comptroller does not include the spending or wages of the city’s more than half a million estimated undocumented residents.

Federal law, local policies

Advocates say the city has its own set of immigration policy problems, only some of which are the result of federal legislation. Reduced education resources contribute to non-native English speaking and Hispanic school children having the highest drop-out rates in the city, says Javier Valdés, deputy director at Make the Road, a direct service provider to low-income immigrants in Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn. And current occupancy caps in the city housing code often work against large immigrant families trying to find appropriate affordable housing, says the Manhattan Institute’s Salins.

The city’s confusing mix of local and federal law enforcement that deals with immigrants is also a problem, says Angela Fernández, executive director of the nonprofit Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights. At places like Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex off the coast of Queens, immigrants awaiting trial can be placed into deportation proceedings, regardless of their conviction, if they unknowingly disclose their illegal immigration status to a federal agent. “It’s the intersection between criminal and immigration law,” Fernández said, “which is problematic from a due process position.”

Immigration law is ultimately federal law, but localities like New York often make their own policies to deal with issues, which results in inconsistencies across the nation. Salins says as talks about reform continue, bringing the law and reality as close to conformity as possible should be the goal. “The optimal is to have national immigration law that is consistent with the on-the-ground reality in places like New York,” Salins said.

But getting on the same page as to whose reality the nation’s immigration policy should reflect will be difficult. To solve that problem, immigrant advocates say they hope that, in New York at least, there will be coalition-building at the grassroots level, in addition to the mayor’s initiative. Rev. Vázquez says after seeing how quickly community groups and local officials came together to advocate for a complete Census count, there is a good chance they will come together again to promote comprehensive immigration reform.

“Ten years ago it was hard – the community wasn’t involved,” said Vazquez. “But we have a different New York now.”

– Kalyn Belsha