Who Counts?

By Mark Krikorian on August 11, 2009

While reflecting on a recent Quebec meal of french fries bathed in cheese and gravy (who thought that up, anyway?), I read the Wall Street Journal piece linked in the web briefing about the harmful effects of counting illegal aliens in next year's decennial census for the purposes of congressional (and state legislative) apportionment. For details on which states won and lost from the inclusion of illegal (and legal) immigrants in the past two censuses, see my colleagues' work on this (here, here, and here).

But as sympathetic as I am to the concerns of the authors, the piece is sloppy and poorly thought-out. Both the authors and the headline writer conflate the inclusion of illegal aliens in the count with the inclusion of non-citizens in general — obviously, all illegals are non-citizens but not all non-citizens are illegal. If they'd done some research, they'd have learned that the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a low-immigration activist group, sued over the 1980 and 1990 censuses to stop the inclusion of illegal aliens for the purposes of apportionment and lost both times for lack of standing (if U.S. citizen eligible voters don't have standing, who does?). But I've never heard of any effort to exclude legal residents from the census count and the article's implication that the inclusion of even legal non-citizens is a new development is simply absurd (heard of the Constitution's three-fifths rule, anyone?)

And their final sentence is a real doozie: "But Congress must not permit the bureau to unconstitutionally redefine who are 'We the People of the United States.'" What? The Census Bureau isn't "redefining" anything — they're just doing what the president, Congress, and increasingly, the courts tell them to do. I understand the emotional satisfaction one can get fron kicking the bureaucrats, but in this case it's not only factually incorrect, it's counterproductive. There's nothing the Bureau can do one way or the other — any effort to exclude anyone from the count for purposes of apportionment would require Congress to pass a law, the president to sign it, and then our chief legislative body, the Supreme Court, to give its approval. Any bets on when that's going to happen?

In fact, there's no way (short of using statistical sampling, which Republicans have fought for years) to exclude illegal aliens from the census count. It seems to me there are two ways to go about addressing the issue of non-citizens in the census. First, you could ask on the short form (which is already set for next year, so this would be for the 2020 census) whether or not a person is a U.S. citizen, and use only the Yes answers for purposes of apportionment. I'm not actually against that, but it would be a departure from the practice of the past 22 censuses and would affect all non-citizens, not just illegals.

But if the inclusion of illegals specifically is your concern, then better enforcement of the immigration laws is your only practical recourse (something I suspect the Journal wasn't considering when they greenlighted the op-ed). This would have three positive effcts — dissuade foreigners from coming here illegally, dissuading some of those already here from staying, and dissuading those remaining here from answering census questionnaires (it's estimated that 90 percent of illegals are counted in Census Bureau surveys).

This last one has the most potent short-term impact — stepping up enforcement in the run-up to April 1, 2010, Census Day, would scare off illegals from responding and result in an apportionment of congressional and state legislative seats less arttificially skewed in favor of the Democrats. But this administration is likely to do the opposite and follow in the footsteps of the Carter administration, which ordered the INS to stop immigration enforcement altogether in the spring of 1980 so the illegals would feel safe to come forward and be counted. Preventing a repeat of that policy should be a top priority for conservatives.