THE BLOG
11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waking Up To the Coming Battle Over the Census

Last night's reports of the murder of a US Census worker will bring national attention to the emerging politics of the Census count, something that we've long been worried about at NDN.

In August I posted the following about a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed which signaled the beginning of a new campaign by the right to disrupt the vital Census count next year:

For many months now NDN has been making the case that inevitably the right would make a spirited case to prevent the Census, to be conducted next year, from counting undocumented immigrants, or at least using their numbers to influence reapportionment or the allocation of resources by the government (the primary purpose of the every ten year count).

Today the Wall Street Journal is running a well-articulated early salvo in this coming battle by John S. Baker and Elliot Stonecipher. It starts off:

"Next year's census will determine the apportionment of House members and Electoral College votes for each state. To accomplish these vital constitutional purposes, the enumeration should count only citizens and persons who are legal, permanent residents. But it won't.

Instead, the U.S. Census Bureau is set to count all persons physically present in the country--including large numbers who are here illegally. The result will unconstitutionally increase the number of representatives in some states and deprive some other states of their rightful political representation. Citizens of "loser" states should be outraged. Yet few are even aware of what's going on.

In 1790, the first Census Act provided that the enumeration of that year would count "inhabitants" and "distinguish" various subgroups by age, sex, status as free persons, etc. Inhabitant was a term with a well-defined meaning that encompassed, as the Oxford English Dictionary expressed it, one who "is a bona fide member of a State, subject to all the requisitions of its laws, and entitled to all the privileges which they confer."

Thus early census questionnaires generally asked a question that got at the issue of citizenship or permanent resident status, e.g., "what state or foreign country were you born in?" or whether an individual who said he was foreign-born was naturalized. Over the years, however, Congress and the Census Bureau have added inquiries that have little or nothing to do with census's constitutional purpose.

By 1980 there were two census forms. The shorter form went to every person physically present in the country and was used to establish congressional apportionment. It had no question pertaining to an individual's citizenship or legal status as a resident. The longer form gathered various kinds of socioeconomic information including citizenship status, but it went only to a sample of U.S. households. That pattern was repeated for the 1990 and 2000 censuses.

The 2010 census will use only the short form. The long form has been replaced by the Census Bureau's ongoing American Community Survey. Dr. Elizabeth Grieco, chief of the Census Bureau's Immigration Statistics Staff, told us in a recent interview that the 2010 census short form does not ask about citizenship because "Congress has not asked us to do that."

Because the census (since at least 1980) has not distinguished citizens and permanent, legal residents from individuals here illegally, the basis for apportionment of House seats has been skewed. According to the Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey data (2007), states with a significant net gain in population by inclusion of noncitizens include Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Texas. (There are tiny net gains for Hawaii and Massachusetts.)

This makes a real difference. Here's why:

According to the latest American Community Survey, California has 5,622,422 noncitizens in its population of 36,264,467. Based on our round-number projection of a decade-end population in that state of 37,000,000 (including 5,750,000 noncitizens), California would have 57 members in the newly reapportioned U.S. House of Representatives.

However, with noncitizens not included for purposes of reapportionment, California would have 48 House seats (based on an estimated 308 million total population in 2010 with 283 million citizens, or 650,000 citizens per House seat). Using a similar projection, Texas would have 38 House members with noncitizens included. With only citizens counted, it would be entitled to 34 members."

You get the idea.

We've been arguing, aggressively, that it is important for the Obama Administration to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform by March of 2010 (the count begins in April, 2010) in order to avoid what could become a very nasty debate indeed - in the middle of a very important election - about who exactly is an American. To me the need to conduct a clean and accurate census, so essential to effective governance of the nation, is one of the most powerful reasons why immigration reform cannot wait till 2011, as some have suggested.

In launching DropDobbs.com along with 14 other groups this past week, I cited my own personal weariness with the summer's angry talk and the still all too virulent politics of intolerance. We have long believed the debate over the Census would unleash the reactionary hounds, so to speak, and rather than letting them gain the upper hand in a debate over who we are and who we are becoming, it is essential now for reasonable people of both parties to stand, together, to prevent an angry few from hijacking what is, in this case, a process so integral to the very functioning of our democracy.

Next year is shaping up to be an extraordinary one in US history.

Cross-posted at the NDN blog.