Antonia Alvarez made it clear this week that when it comes to the 2010 U.S. Census, Minnesota's Latinos are going to be heard.

Alvarez, co-founder of the statewide La Asamblea De Derechos Civiles (the Assembly of Civil Rights), followed Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to the stage during a census informational program Thursday night at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. Noticing the mayor in conversation at the side of the stage, Alvarez paused, and through an interpreter said that she would not continue until she had the mayor's full attention.

With the mayor on board, Alvarez said, "With or without documentation, [the Latino community] will participate in the census if we hear from you that the census is safe and that our information will not be turned over to immigration.''

Such concerns are the impetus for the federal government's $340 million informational campaign, now in full force, designed to erase people's fears -- among minorities in particular -- that information gathered in the census could be used against them.

Barbara Ronningen, a state demographer, estimated that Minnesota has 75,000 to 100,000 illegal immigrants. The federal government wants them to know that for census purposes, they count. The outreach effort is about convincing more than illegal immigrants; other minority groups have a historical distrust of government or aren't familiar enough with the U.S. system to know what the census is about.

The government's message to all of them is simple: No one, not immigration, not your landlord, not the president, not the CIA, is going to have access to the information.

"We're reaching out to local community groups, which is something we haven't done in the past,'' U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said. "We have tried to reflect the diversity of America in the diversity of tools we are using." Those tools include advertising in multiple languages.

At stake is $400 billion in government funding determined by the census. Minnesota also is close to losing one of its eight congressional seats, which are based on population.

Census forms will be sent out March 15.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was among Thursday's speakers. He said afterward that he's putting his credibility on the line with black constituents by asking them to take part.

"The African-American community has a history with the American government that is fraught with issues,'' he said. "There has been, historically, an institutional distrust. That's why the message has to be sent out that the census is covered in privacy."

Rep. Bobby Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents a part of north Minneapolis that Ellison labeled "hard to count," said the Census Bureau is wise to woo minority communities.

"I think you have to look to nontraditional strategies to make sure all people are counted,'' Champion said. "Sometimes government entities come into a community and devise their own plan without consulting the leaders of that community."

But suspicion remains. Alvarez said the Latino community worries that the state simply wants to use Latinos to get federal funds and that it has no plans to do anything to benefit the community.

Claudia Fuentes, a policy aide for Rybak, has been a guest on Spanish-speaking radio stations in hopes of persuading Latinos, including those in the country illegally, to participate. She said the lack of trust in the government came through loud and clear in listeners' questions. "These are people who don't go to banks, pay in cash and don't sign their names to anything,'' Fuentes said.

Fuentes said men ages 18 to 35 are difficult sells. They are often the ones here looking for work, she said. "We have so many immigrant men living here in groups who go totally unaccounted for,'' Fuentes said.

Thursday night, Rybak did return to the stage to give his promise to Alvarez. Later, Alvarez said she took the mayor at his word, but added that the Latino community has heard promises before.

Dean Spiros • 952-882-9203