The famed science-fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut - stationed in Schenectady, NY as a General Electric public relations man before hitting it big with his first novel - had this to say of the city in a 1965 New York Times interview: "It's a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now." That was when Schenectady had a population of 120,000 people. The city has experienced a far more 'gruesome now' over the past four decades as its population dropped in half after General Electric moved its manufacturing abroad and young people left upstate New York in search of better career opportunities.
My wife - a first generation Salvadoran-American attorney who grew up in some of the roughest areas of Los Angeles - once described part of my nearby hometown of Albany, NY as "the scariest place I've ever been." When a girl from East LA thinks Albany is the most dangerous city in America, you know upstate New York has a problem.
Make no mistake: upstate New York is a microcosm of America's Rust Belt and agricultural communities. As manufacturing and farming declined upstate, so did the area cities' populations and their corresponding tax bases: in the Capital District region, Albany's population dropped by 18%, Schenectady's by 21% and Amsterdam's by a staggering 28% between 1950 and 2000. Had Latino immigrants not moved to these small cities in the past two decades, the population losses would have been far higher.
This March, the Census form will be mailed to U.S. households to count all people in the United States. Census data is used to distribute $400 billion of government money to communities for schools, hospitals, transportation and programs such as job training. The Census counts everybody and it does not inquire about respondents' legal status; by law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents' answers with any other government agency. It is estimated that for every person not counted by the Census, their local community will lose $10,000 in federal funding over ten years.
Unfortunately, some politicians have tried to make the Census a political issue, arguing that counting undocumented immigrants puts their states at a disadvantage for political representation. This couldn't be further from the truth. After the 2010 Census, new members of Congress in states like Georgia and South Carolina, as well as Arizona and Texas, will owe their positions, in part, to the expanding Latino population. This is because one seat in Congress is allocated for every 600,000 people counted in a given state. Latino immigrants have driven the majority of growth in the states poised to gain House seats following the 2010 Census, especially in Arizona and Texas, which are projected to gain more than one seat. In those two states, Latinos comprise 59% of the population growth since 2000.
Conversely, states like New York and New Jersey that are potentially losing Congressional representation in 2010 due to population loss would fare much worse had Latino immigrants not moved there in record numbers during that same period. Since 2000, Latinos have accounted for at least half of the population growth in New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio and Iowa. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey would have seen a net decline in population over the last decade if not for Latino immigration.
In times like these, it doesn't make sense to leave money on the table. Immigrants contribute to this country - and the towns and cities they reside in deserve their fair share of funding. When immigrants fill out the Census form, it helps cities and towns fight for their fair share of government money to fix roads, maintain schools and improve hospitals. Regardless of one's stance on immigration, it is in the interest of all Americans to make sure that immigrants participate in the 2010 Census. If the federal government doesn't have an accurate count of how many people reside in each city or town, public services will remain under-funded and over-stressed at the local level; Census data - which is relied upon by government agencies - cannot reflect the true population of a community when its residents are not being counted.
Kurt Vonnegut used harsh words when he described Schenectady (and by extension, countless other small industrial cities) as being "awkwardly set in the gruesome now," but as an author and humanist, one of his main themes was actually human dignity. Considering the unusual and bizarre characters in some of his novels, we might think dignity is the last thing Vonnegut would value. Human dignity means, however, that people have value as people no matter who they are. And that has a particular element of truth when it comes to the Census: every body adds value to their community - to the tune of ten thousand dollars per person in federal funding over ten years - regardless of race, class or legal status. Surely that is something that both Vonnegut and America's under-funded public teachers, nurses and transportation workers would agree on.