Montgomery County organizing events to get Hispanics to mail in census forms

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

In the final month before census forms are mailed to U.S. households, Montgomery County is making a determined push to encourage Hispanic residents to mail in their questionnaires.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), surrounded by several Latino leaders, announced Thursday that the county will host three festivals March 27 that focus on the census in communities with large Hispanic populations -- Gaithersburg, Wheaton and Takoma Park. He said the county also is organizing a meeting next month to ask Latino clergy to urge their congregations to participate in the census.

Noting that millions of dollars in federal funds are at stake, Leggett said, "I want the census figures to reflect the growing and vibrant Latino community that we have here in our county."

Like other jurisdictions, Montgomery is facing two factors that officials fear may result in an undercount of Hispanics. Many of the estimated 30 percent of Hispanics who are in the country illegally have expressed concern that filling out a census questionnaire could clue immigration authorities to their presence, even though individual census forms are confidential. And a group led by Latino evangelical ministers is urging a census boycott to protest the lack of progress on immigration reform.

"We have the makings of a perfect storm," said Manny Hidalgo, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Corp. "There is a very vocal anti-immigrant presence in Montgomery County that has been attacking every which way. They have created a climate of fear and intimidation, the likes of which I've never seen."

The 2000 Census counted 100,000 Hispanics in Montgomery, 11.5 percent of the total of 873,000 residents. In 2008, the Census Bureau estimated that 135,000 of the county's 943,000 residents, or more than 14 percent, were Hispanic. County officials and Hispanic leaders say they think tens of thousands of Latinos have not been counted. In one of the few hard indicators, county school officials reported a 57 percent increase in the number of Hispanic students during the decade, from about 19,500 in 2000 to about 30,750 in the 2008-09 school year.

The county has developed a map showing 42 census tracts considered difficult to count, many in Hispanic neighborhoods. It is almost identical to a school map developed earlier in the decade that identified areas with the highest level of poverty and non-English speakers, said County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County), co-chairman of the county's Complete Count Committee for the census. The county map will be used to identify schools, employers, houses of worship, apartment complexes and other places where census efforts can be targeted.

Walkiria Pool, president of Centro de Apoyo Familiar in Silver Spring, said some Hispanics need to learn about the census because it is not used for political apportionment or distribution of federal funds in their native countries as it is in the United States.

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