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Mass. Immigrants Divided Over Census Boycott04:40
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Jose Venancio stands in a parking lot, waiting for someone to offer him work. He's surrounded by about 20 other Brazilian men, all in paint-splattered work clothes. Venancio is here illegally and has been for the last 17 years. That hasn't stopped him from filling out U.S. census forms when they arrive in the mail.

"The census is very important for the community," Venancio says in Portuguese. "It's how politicians know how many people there are and where to direct money for health and education."

Fausto da Rocha talks about boycotting the census on his daily Portuguese language radio show. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)
Fausto da Rocha talks about boycotting the census on his daily Portuguese language radio show. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

That, he says, is what makes it an important political tool — and, perhaps, the only tool for someone who can't vote. So, this year he will boycott the census. "That way politicians will be forced to support laws that favor immigrants," Venancio says.

The boycott was dreamed up by a national group of Latino evangelical pastors. On a local level, it's been adopted by some influential voices in the Brazilian community.

Fausto da Rocha hosts a daily Portuguese language radio show on an AM station out of Chelsea. The show is eclectic. Da Rocha talks about politics in Brazil, politics in the United States and, in between, he plays Christian music from Brazil.

But for the past three weeks, his show has focused on the census more than anything else. During one recent show, dozens of people called in supporting the boycott.

"Before they count us, they have to legalize us," Fausto reminds listeners at the end of the show.

Da Rocha is recruiting other radio talk show hosts and pastors to talk to other immigrant groups about the boycott. He has no doubt about his targets: Democrats who have promised to work on immigration reform.

"They give hope to us," da Rocha says. "But now, we try to tell them, 'You guys have until March to make immigration reform. By March, if you do not pass immigration reform, we're going to boycott the census and take power away from you.' "

This isn't an empty threat. The state is at risk of losing one of 10 congressional seats. Massachusetts isn't growing as much as other states. And the only growth is due to immigrants.

"Our foreign-born population has been so critical to the growth of our population," says Richard Chacon, the director of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants. "If it weren't for our foreign-born population, there's a good chance that we would have seen a decline in our overall population in Massachusetts. And that's extremely important when it comes to the size of our congressional delegation or some federal funding."

Chacon says he is concerned that anyone is trying to discourage immigrants from participating in the census.

The boycott campaign has put da Rocha on the outs with some immigrant groups, including his own. Da Rocha is the executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center, a non-profit in Boston. The board doesn't support the boycott, so da Rocha has taken a 60-day leave to work on the campaign.

Meantime, the largest coalition of immigrant groups in the state is starting its own campaign next month to encourage all immigrants to participate in the census.

"I mean, if we want to be out of the shadows, we want to be out of the shadows," says Frank Soults, the communications director for MIRA, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

"It seems really contradictory to try to withhold your count when you're trying to get your voice heard," Soults says. "And it seems like you're hurting the people that actually are probably supporting you. The entire Massachusetts delegation is working for immigration reform. We're trying to get them to work harder."

Soults is hoping Obama will take up immigration when, and if, he resolves the health care debate. Whether you're for or against reform, Soults says, the state needs a better picture of who is here and why.

This program aired on September 8, 2009.

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