Raids during the population count would make an already distrustful group even less likely to cooperate with government workers who are supposed to include them, the Census Bureau's second-ranking official said in an Associated Press interview.
Deputy Director Preston Jay Waite said immigration enforcement officials did not conduct raids for several months before and after the 2000 census. But today's political climate is even more volatile on the issue of illegal immigration.
Enforcement agents "have a job to do," Waite said. "They may not be able to give us as much of a break" in 2010.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman declined to say whether immigration officials would halt raids. "If we were, we wouldn't talk about it," Pat Reilly said.
"For us to suspend that enforcement would probably take a lot more than one meeting," Reilly said. "We would have to discuss this at the highest levels of both agencies."
The issue arises as the U.S. struggles to resolve the fate of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. After Congress failed to pass an immigration overhaul sought by the president, the Bush administration last week said it would step up efforts to enforce immigration laws.
One lawmaker said she thinks "it's nuts" for the Census Bureau to ask for a break in enforcement.
"I don't know what country the Census Bureau is living in," Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said in a telephone interview from her district. "I can tell them the American people have grown sick and tired of their immigration laws not being enforced. They are not going to tolerate enforcement being suspended for any amount of time."
The Constitution requires the Census Bureau to count everyone, including illegal immigrants, in the census. The once-a-decade population count is then used to apportion seats in Congress and to appropriate billions of dollars in federal spending each year.
Miller has introduced a constitutional amendment that would apportion seats in Congress based only on the number of U.S. citizens in each state.
The Census Bureau plans to approach all federal agencies for help in getting an accurate count, Waite said.
Illegal immigrants are notoriously hard to count, although outside experts estimate that census workers count 85 percent to 90 percent of them.
Census workers ask immigrants if they are citizens; they do not ask if they are in the country legally.
"We're supposed to count every resident. If you go out and ask, 'Are you here illegally?' they are going to run," said Kenneth Prewitt, who directed the Census Bureau during the 2000 census.
Prewitt said the public already is suspicious of government workers knocking on their doors and asking personal questions. Those suspicions are amplified among illegal immigrants, even though personal information collected by Census Bureau is private by law.
Prewitt said immigration officials informally agreed to cooperate with the Census Bureau during the 2000 census by not conducting any large-scale raids.
"If they had a reason to think it was important to carry out an action, they would have done so," Prewitt said. "But they did offer to cooperate as much as possible so they didn't create a climate of fear. They did not carry out any major raids."
Reilly, the immigration enforcement spokeswoman, said she could not confirm any informal agreements to scale back enforcement during the 2000 census.
She said the agency "continued to perform its duty to enforce the nation's immigration laws by continuing to investigate, pursue and arrest criminal and other egregious violators."
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said the intense debate over immigration has made immigrants even more suspicious of the government today.
"The Census Bureau has a job to do," said Vargas, who belongs to a committee that advises the bureau on the 2010 census. "They need to convince people that they need to report themselves to the federal government and that it's going to remain confidential. That's a hard sell."
Supporters of stricter immigration laws said the whole discussion
of suspending raids shows that the immigration system is broken.
"If you don't enforce your laws, this is what you are going to get, one agency asking another agency to subvert the law," said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates stricter enforcement of immigration laws.