WASHINGTON Latinos are the biggest minority in the United States but they could jeopardize a chance to flex their newfound political muscle as millions of them dodge a nationwide census.
Many of the millions of illegal Hispanic immigrants fear that filling in the 10-question census forms could increase their risk of deportation. Others are frustrated with President Barack Obama's slow start on immigration reforms.
A poll by the Pew Research Center showed that one-third of Hispanics have not even heard of the 2010 Census, a $14 billion effort to map the nation's population.
"I would say that more than 50 percent of the Latino community will not participate in the census," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Peruvian-born activist with the Latino Federation of Greater Washington.
"The problem is that by not participating we will be missing a big opportunity from a political, economic, social and even cultural point of view," said Ruiz who helped organize huge immigrant marches in 2006.
There are an estimated 50 million Hispanics in the United States. Under-representation in the census could hurt access to federal funding for their communities. An updated snapshot of the population, the census is designed in part to help the government allocate $400 billion of federal funding.
An accurate count should in theory translate into more teachers, heath facilities and infrastructure in heavily Latino neighborhoods. It should also boost Hispanics' political clout by giving largely Latino districts more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives after redistricting.
In Mount Pleasant, a heavily-Latino neighborhood in Washington dotted with colorful stores, many residents are there illegally and give vague answers to strangers, their eyes constantly scanning the street.
Waiting at a corner to be picked up for a day's work at a construction site, Jose Ricardo said he didn't see the point of the census.
"I don't think I'll do it. Politicians never do anything for us," said the 35-year old Salvadorean, black woolen cap down low over his eyes.
Tens of thousands gathered last weekend near the White House to remind President Barack Obama they are still waiting for the promised immigration reform that helped draw Latinos to the polls in record numbers when he was elected in 2008.
Deportation is a constant fear for millions who are in the United States without legal papers. "Removals" of illegal workers jumped by 23.5 percent to almost 357,000 in the 2008 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Immigration reform, which former President George W. Bush tried but failed to deliver, could offer about 10.7 million people, 80 percent of them Latino, a path to legalization.
Some groups are calling for a boycott of the census unless the Obama administration stops the deportations.
"We have no other choice left than taking such radical actions as this one. We are obliged by moral responsibility," said Rev. Miguel Rivera, head of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders.
Rivera said 38 percent of his congregation is made up of undocumented immigrants and they are afraid the Census Bureau will pass information on to other federal agencies, despite reassurances that the information is confidential.
"For an undocumented immigrant there is no benefit ... We believe some 3.5 million members of our congregations are not going to participate in the census," he said.
Voto Latino, a non-profit encouraging civil participation among young Hispanics, calls the boycott "irresponsible".
It has recruited Hollywood stars from Jennifer Lopez to Eva Longoria for its "Be Counted" campaign and is trying to counter the boycott by offering free downloads of songs from artists like merengue star Juan Luis Guerra.
"It's very misguided logic to boycott the census because if we don't know how many immigrants there are in this country how can you ever advocate for immigration reform?," said the group's deputy director Josh Norek.
Still, Hispanics in Mount Pleasant and across the country complain about the administration's failure to push hard for immigration reform so far in a nation where tortillas outsell bread in some cities.
Obama dedicated only 12 seconds to immigration reform in his State of the Union address in January. Ruiz said it was an "insult" to the Latino community.
"There is a lot of frustration, a growing sentiment against the Obama administration for its lack of action," said Ruiz, who campaigned for Obama in 2008 and still has a "Latinos for Obama" sticker on his laptop.
The Census Bureau promises that the information it gathers will not lead to deportations. "Everybody needs to be counted. We do not ask someone's migration status, we do not ask someone's social security number. Everything is strictly confidential," said its head of publicity, Raul Cisneros.
Some in the streets of Mount Pleasant seem to be getting the message. "It's very important we get counted. If you're interested in the migration reform then you have to make yourself heard," said Alcices, a 42-year old Salvadorean construction worker who skipped the last census in 2000.
(Reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Kieran Murray)