TACOMA, Wash. — Paulo Sergio Alfaro-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant being held at a detention center in Washington state, had no idea that the federal government would count him in the census.
No one gave him a census form. No one told him his information would be culled from the center's records.
But counted he was, along with other illegal immigrants facing deportation in detention centers across the country - about 30,000 people on any given day, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement.
By the time the census delivers the total tallies to the state and federal government, most of the immigrants will be long gone. But because the population snapshot determines the allocation of federal dollars, those in custody could help bring money to the towns, cities and counties in Texas, Arizona, Washington and Georgia where the country's biggest and newest facilities are located.
"I think the irony, if there's any irony, is that the locality is what's going to benefit, because you have a detention center in a particular city where people have been brought from different parts of the region, and that community will benefit," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, an organization that has pushed Latinos to participate in the census.
This census brings a twist, though. For the first time, states have the option of counting people in detention centers and prisons as residents of their last address before they're detained, worrying some local lawmakers who say cities and counties that host detention centers could lose money.
"Detention centers and prisons should probably count where they are located, that's where resources would be required," Rep. Sanford D. Bishop, D-Georgia wrote in a May letter to the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the census. Bishop represents Stewart County, Georgia, population 4,600, where the nation's largest detention center housed a total of 14,000 people between April 2007 and March 2008.
ICE operates 22 immigrant detention centers and also houses people in hundreds of other jails or prisons. Most of the largest centers are in small towns in Texas, Arizona and Georgia. Texas is home to six detention centers, and Arizona has three.
The payout can be hefty for small towns. Federal money being distributed from the census averaged about $1,469 per person in fiscal year 2008, according to the Brookings Institute, and other grants are also available to small towns depending on their population.
In Raymondville, Texas, a town of nearly 10,000 people, the Willacy Detention Center holds an average daily population of about 1,000. The center opened in 2006 and was a boon the community as ICE and the private company that runs the center rushed to hire personnel.
Now, the detention center's population may push Raymondville over the town's goal of surpassing 10,000, a number that will allow them to qualify for more federal help, Mayor Orlando Correa said.
"As long it's humane, as long as the facility respects the rights of these people and they're not treated like animals, I'm OK with it," Correa said.
For safety reasons, most detainees are counted through administrative records, rather than forms being passed out, U.S Census Bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner said. The census will cull data from records kept on April 1.
Alfaro-Sanchez, for his part, is glad he's being counted. He entered the country when he was about 15 through Tijuana, and worked as a handyman in Goldendale, a small town in eastern Washington.
He arrived in at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma on March 30 after being arrested in a fight. The charges were dropped, he said, but immigration officers had already flagged him for arrest.
"I think that even though we may be sent back, there's a lot of people who may need that money, the Hispanic people that are here," the 32-year-old said in Spanish.
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