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Officials: Illegal immigrants shouldn't fear census

A Census worker at the front door often means one thing to illegal immigrants.

"A lot of people think, "Hey, who's this guy coming to my door? Probably Immigration,' " says Alejandro Lopez, a Chicagoan who is one of many people being asked to spread the word about the census in the nation's often undercounted minority communities.

The word is this: Whether you are here legally or not, you should fill out the questionnaire when it arrives in April. Officials at the Census Bureau say they don't care if you're here illegally. In fact, they won't even ask.

"The Census doesn't exist to do law enforcement," says Dianne Schmidley, a census demographer. "Our job is to get a body count."

The Census Bureau asks whether those in the household are U.S. citizens. But it has never distinguished between non-citizens who are in this country legally and those here illegally. The counting of illegal immigrants was not even an issue until their numbers began swelling in the mid-1970s.

Schmidley says singling out illegal immigrants would only lower a response rate that already is expected to be the lowest in history _ 61 percent, compared with 75 percent of households in 1980 and 65 percent in 1990.

It is largely poor people and minorities who get missed.

Undercounting can be costly to communities, because they can lose out on funding for everything from schools to fire stations. It can also mean the loss of political representation.

That's why activists like Ana Maria Soto spend much time talking to community groups and church congregations about the census.

"We're not getting our piece of the pie, and that needs to change _ because we're hungry," says Soto, regional census director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Chicago.

Some immigration-reform groups fear the slice is already too big when it comes to political representation.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform has twice sued the Census Bureau to get it to stop including illegal immigrants in numbers used to apportion seats in Congress. Both lawsuits were thrown out.

"As a matter of fairness, it's hard for folks whose ancestors built this country to understand how they could be losing political representation to people who just crashed our borders and entered illegally," says Dan Stein, executive director of the lobbying group.