What seems like a simple question - How many Hispanics are living in the United States? - has become surprisingly complex as the 2010 census approaches.
Hispanics and other minorities have historically been undercounted in the once-a-decade survey. Advocacy groups are now launching their traditional efforts to ensure an accurate count, but a variety of factors have created new problems for the painting of America's official portrait.
Activists and government officials say fears over immigration enforcement and government snooping are making people more reluctant to share their information. The economic meltdown and Bush administration budget cuts have slowed funding for the census. Millions of laid-off renters and foreclosed homeowners are on the move.
There are more immigrants here, speaking more languages, than ever before. Some of those immigrants may not know what a census is, or may come from countries where such information is used against rather than for the people.
"This country is just much more complex now, on many different levels," said Terry Ao, director of census and voting programs for the Asian American Justice Center.
The 2000 census counted 35,305,818 Hispanics in the United States. Hispanic groups estimate that several million more were missed. In 2007, the most recent year available, the Hispanic population had grown to an estimated 44,852,816.
The Constitution mandates that every ten years, each person living in the country - regardless of citizenship or immigration status - must be counted.
The census results are used to draw congressional districts and allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding for schools, roads and other services. The data also trickles down to state and local governments for determining everything from the size of hospitals to the placement of bus stops.
On a more emotional level, the census is the measure of our nation, a literal definition of what we are. That can touch nerves left raw by the simmering immigration debate.
Anti-immigration groups don't object to an accurate count, which may provide fuel for their arguments. But they are opposed to the past practice of suspending immigration raids while the census is being conducted. And they have major objections to counting non-citizens when drawing congressional districts.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, called the practice "an assault on the 'one man, one vote' idea."
"It transfers political power to the citizens who live in districts with high numbers of illegal aliens," he said. "If you live in Southern California, your vote counts a great deal more than if you live in Michigan or somewhere with lower immigration."
Ensuring that the maximum number of minorities are counted "seems to be a much bigger issue for the ethnic interest groups and advocacy groups, because that's how they build their interests and political power," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Those interest groups point out that everyone suffers if undercounting leads to less funding for schools, roads or hospitals.
"If you go back to your district, regardless of how many people there are citizens or voters, when you're counting one million and need to count two, this has a huge impact on whether you can deliver services for your voters," said Efrain Escobedo, senior director of civic engagement for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Numbers certainly do mean power, so the census has long been subject to political maneuvering.
Earlier this year, for example, a brief dispute arose after President Barack Obama nominated Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to head the Commerce Department, which oversees the census. Minority groups protested that Gregg and other Republicans had voted to cut census funding because counting additional minorities or urban dwellers was unlikely to lead to more GOP votes or districts.
The White House responded by saying it would take a greater role in supervising the census - which prompted a Republican outcry over possible Democratic manipulation of the redistricting process.
The exploding Hispanic population has been widely noted in political circles, and Hispanics were considered a key component of Obama's presidential victory in states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
Hispanic groups are now at the forefront of a coalition spanning politics, social services and Spanish-language media that is planning a broad census effort. They are hoping to partner with the Census Bureau on community-based programs, public service announcements and paid advertising. They also want minorities hired to plan the outreach and conduct door-to-door surveys in areas with high percentages of immigrants and other hard-to-count populations, such as black men.
"We're prepared to mount our own national campaign to count ourselves," Escobedo said. "We are going to motivate every ounce of people power that we have ... to let people know it's so critical for your child's education, and for your services in the community."
The Census Bureau seems receptive to these efforts.
For the first time, it will mail bilingual forms to 13 million homes this year. It has a more accurate database of addresses and demographic information thanks to the annual American Community Survey, which began in 2001. It is soliciting employees who can speak languages other than English.
Stephen Buckner, a Census Bureau spokesman, said it will be working with minority groups to "hire indigenously."
"When somebody knocks on your door and you answer it, you're almost going to see a reflection of yourself," he said.
But there have been persistent questions about whether the federal government is prepared to mobilize its largest peacetime operation. The official kickoff date is April 1, 2010.
The census director position is currently filled on an interim basis; the process has been held up by delays in confirming a Commerce Secretary. Technological snafus have plagued plans to gather data by handheld and wireless devices.
The federal Government Accountability Office recently said the 2010 census is in "serious trouble"; on March 6 the GAO reported that the census was still behind schedule, and that the bureau had no clear plan to improve the counting of minorities.
Budgets that were cut during the Bush administration are slowly being replenished; the stimulus package included $1 billion for the census.
Minority groups still claim that spending levels for outreach are currently below 2000 levels. "We're doing less advertising than 2000, and there are a lot more people to count," Escobedo said.
Buckner said that when 2010 budgets are approved, the Census Bureau expects to spend more on advertising. The total 2010 census budget is expected to be between $14 billion and 15 billion, the most ever, he said.
Still, Ao, of the Asian American Justice Center, said "we definitely run the risk of having, possibly, a more inaccurate census" than 2000.
"People don't understand that you can't make up for not giving them the money they need at a certain time," she said. "If you triple the amount a month late, they can't do anything with that. Timing really does matter."
The census begins with a written questionnaire mailed to every known U.S. address. About 1.2 million people collect information from those who do not respond, with hundreds of thousands fanning out across the country to visit homes. Their information is fed into computer models that use the real data to extrapolate the population of similar nearby dwellings.
In 1990, the census missed an estimated 8 million people, mostly immigrants and urban minorities, advocacy groups say, and it counted about 4 million whites twice, mostly college students and people who owned two homes. There was less of a minority undercount in 2000.
The impact of undercounting can be significant. For example, about 838,000 Californians went uncounted in 1990, which cost the state $223 million in Medicaid and other federal programs, according to the GAO.
In minority communities, enumerators are asked to look for signs of extra people: additional mailboxes or utility meters, new units built in back of older housing, garages that have been converted into apartments.
But such efforts will be for naught unless there is proper marketing to educate people on the importance of the census, advocates and government officials agree.
"And not a marketing campaign directed at 60-year-old white guys like me," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who chairs the Senate subcommitee overseeing the census, "but to younger people, people who may not speak English well, who we might otherwise leave out."