Immigration's Effect on the Redistribution of House Seats

Rotten Boroughs

By Steven A. Camarota on August 1, 1998

pp. 1-4 in Immigration Review no. 33, Fall 1998

The current national debate over immigration's impact on the United States has generally focused on its effect on wages, jobs, public coffers, and a broad array of cultural issues. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the question of how immigration affects the nation's political institutions.

In a new report published by the Center for Immigration Studies, Remaking the Political Landscape: How Immigration Redistributes Seats in the House, we examine how current immigration policy affects the allocation of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Because the current level of immigration is so high (eight to 10 million immigrants arrive each decade) and because immigrants settle unevenly across the country (75 percent live in just six states), immigration causes the population in some states to increase much more rapidly than in others. Since seats in the House are reapportioned every 10 years based on each state's population relative to the rest of the country, and all persons — citizens, legal immigrants, and illegal aliens — who are counted in the census are included in the apportionment calculations, immigration is having a significant effect on the distribution of seats in the House. And as seats are redistributed, so is political power in Washington.

In the study, we calculated how many seats have changed hands or will do so because of immigration during the 20-year period from 1980 to 2000 (for the 2000 calculation we assume that immigration continues at its current level). The estimates made in this study were calculated by removing the recent immigrant population from the 1990 census and from Census Bureau projections for the 2000 census. Once the immigrants who arrived in the 10 years prior to each census were removed, the resulting distribution of House seats was calculated. To determine the direct consequences of immigration, the distribution of seats excluding recent immigrants was compared with the distribution that results when recent immigrants are included. The difference between the two represents the change caused by immigration.

The table on the next page shows only those seats that are redistributed because of immigration in the decade preceding each census. The top portion of the table reports the states that lose seats as a result of immigration, the lower portion lists the states that gain from immigration. For the 2000 census, we estimate that Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will each lose one seat that they currently have and that Colorado and Kentucky will both fail to gain a seat that they otherwise would have had there been no immigration after 1990. In 1990, immigration in the 10 years prior to the census caused Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, and Ohio to lose one seat that they had prior to the census, while Georgia and Kentucky both failed to gain a seat they otherwise would have. Of course, whether a state loses one of the seats it currently has or fails to gain a seat that it otherwise would have gained, the result is the same — less influence in Washington. We also estimate that the effects of illegal immigration account for perhaps four of the total of 13 seats redistributed by immigration in 1990 and 2000.

It should be added that the projections found in the table significantly understate the effects of immigration on congressional representation because they do not include estimates for the effect that the children born to recent immigrants have on the distribution of House seats. If such estimates were included, the impact of immigration would be even greater.

It is also important to keep in mind that none of the states that will lose seats in the next census are declining in population. Together these states have grown by over 100,000 people per year in the 1990s. While more people will be living in each of these states in 2000 than there were in 1990, the even more rapid population growth in other states caused by the arrival of immigrants causes the states listed at the top of the table to lose seats. As a result, in those states, as well as in the country as a whole, immigration-induced population growth creates ever more populous districts. With immigrants adding between eight and 10 million people to the nation's population each decade, not including their U.S.-born children, the average congressional district will have 40,000 more residents by 2000 than it had in 1980 as a direct consequence of immigration, with all that this implies about making representatives more distant and less in touch with their constituents.

Perhaps as important as the redistribution of political power that comes with mass immigration, however, is the way immigration can be seen as distorting democracy, and not just because it makes for ever-larger districts. Immigration takes representation away from states composed almost entirely of citizens and redistributes it to states with large numbers of non-citizen immigrants who cannot vote. In the seven states that will lose a seat (or fail to gain one) in 2000 because of 1990s immigration, the March 1997 Current Population Survey indicates that more than 98 percent of the residents are citizens. In contrast, in the states that will gain seats from immigration, one in seven residents is a non-citizen. This makes immigrant-induced reapportionment of House seats very different from the reapportionment that occurs when natives relocate to another state. Mass immigration has the unavoidable consequence of reducing the representation of American citizens in Congress so that non-citizen immigrants, none of whom can vote and many of whom are illegal, can be represented in the U.S. Congress.

There are now a number of districts in the country where the majority of adults are non-citizens. In the 1996 election, for example, only 55,000 votes were cast in the immigrant-heavy 33rd district of California, and in the 25th district of Texas only 51,000 votes were cast. This is about one-fourth the average vote count of 226,000 for the typical district in Michigan — one of the states losing the most from immigration. In fact, in 1996, there were a total of 11 districts in California and seven in Texas where the total number of votes cast was less than half the number cast in the typical Michigan district. The small number of votes cast in many California and Texas districts is almost entirely a by-product of mass immigration. In California alone, there were nearly six million non-citizen immigrants in 1997, enough to create eight or nine congressional districts. As a practical matter, this situation gives significantly more political power to voting citizens living in districts made up mostly of non-citizens.

In effect, the ballots of voters in high-immigrant districts carry far more weight than the ballots of voters who live in districts made up of citizens. This seeming contradiction of the principle of "one man one vote" exists because the courts have interpreted this principle to mean that districts should be equal in total population — not in eligible voters. This, coupled with the fact that some districts are drawn to ensure a Hispanic majority, makes for districts with very few citizens.

These districts composed of few eligible voters are likely to last for the foreseeable future for a number of reasons. First, it will be a very long time, if ever, before the majority of immigrants already living in the country become citizens. In a 1997 survey, for example, only a third of the immigrants who entered the country in the 1970s or 1980s had become citizens, even though almost all were eligible to do so. While the number of immigrants applying for citizenship has risen dramatically in recent years — mainly because the pool of potential applications is now so large — the vast majority of immigrants in the country have not become citizens. Second, preliminary data from the current fiscal year indicate that the number of applications for citizenship has fallen significantly, suggesting that the increase in applications was at least partly caused by short-term considerations such as welfare reform, and not by a fundamental change in immigrant attitudes about citizenship. Most importantly, the situation will persist because, with over a million legal and illegal immigrants allowed to enter the country each year, there will always be a large population of non-citizen immigrants who will have new districts carved out for them every 10 years so that they can have "representatives" in Congress for whom they cannot vote.

Residents of low-immigration states tend to think that they have, for the most part, avoided the problems faced by states forced to deal with the consequences of mass immigration. However, as the estimates in this study make clear, immigration is exacting a significant political price from those states. Because family connections and existing cultural ties determine where immigrants live, it is highly unlikely that there will be a substantial change in the settlement patterns of immigrants in the near future. Thus, without a change in immigration policy, states which currently have large immigration populations will continue to gain seats at the express of low-immigration states.

Table: The Effect of Recent Immigration on the House

It is important, then, when making decisions regarding immigration policy to take into consideration not only the economic, fiscal, cultural, and demographic impacts of immigration, but also the political impact, part of which is the realignment of power in Congress away from low-immigration states. In addition, careful consideration should be given to the loss of representation suffered by citizens of those states so that new districts — composed largely of non-citizen immigrants who cannot vote — can be created in high-immigration states. This situation does not, of course, need to continue. Congress and the President could reduce legal immigration and do more to control illegal immigration if they chose to. With a lower level of immigration, immigrant-induced reapportionment would be correspondingly less. Lower levels of immigration would also allow time for the immigrants already here to become citizens, thereby reducing the distortion of democracy that comes from having districts composed largely of non-citizens.