10/27/2009 04:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

No Divisive Delays in the 2010 Census

Like a manned mission to the moon, the nation's census requires painstaking planning, exacting execution, and a dedication to staying on schedule.

Among the endeavors dependent on an accurate census are the apportionment of the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, the disbursement of federal funds to states and localities, the nation's knowledge of its own demographics, and decisions about manufacturing, marketing, and location by companies throughout the country. Because so many public and private enterprises rely on correct and comprehensive findings, it is critically important that the census get its job done right - and get it done on time.

So far, fortunately, the 2010 census is proceeding as planned. Some $7 billion worth of research, planning, and preparation has already been conducted. As required by law, the Census Bureau submitted to Congress the topics and questions - two years before the count. Other steps in the process include printing more than 200 million questionnaires, opening local offices, and recruiting and training census takers.

While the census is getting ready to roll like a well-oiled machine, two U.S. Senators recently threw some sand into the gears. During the debate about appropriations for the census, Sens. David Vitter (R-LA) and Robert Bennett (R-UT) demanded that Congress freeze the funding unless the Census Bureau adds a question to the census form, asking respondents whether they are citizens and legal residents.

Make no mistake: such a last-minute change would stall the census and every public and private project that depends upon an accurate headcount of our nation's population, while singling out segments of our society for intimidation and exclusion. This proposal should be soundly rejected for three reasons.

First, adding a new and untested question means costly and cumbersome delays for the census. As 2009 draws to a close, more is at stake than simply reprinting the 2010 census forms or adding an addendum. The Census Bureau would also need to create and produce new promotional materials, adjust data processing systems, and revise instructional materials for census workers, among other modifications. All this takes time, costs money, and would disrupt a complex process.

Second, disrupting the census would delay the apportionment of Congressional and state legislative districts, the allocation of federal funds, and the availability of data essential to corporate decision-making. At a time when the political process is mired in partisanship, public trust in government is at an all-time low, and the economy is stuck in a recession, the last thing the nation needs is a delayed and dysfunctional census.

Third, singling out immigrants, their family members, and their neighbors for a question that many will interpret as a sign that they are suspect, unwanted, and in danger of deportation or incarceration, will jeopardize the census and fracture our society. If already-skeptical residents believe census workers are hunting wrongdoers instead of counting residents, they will refuse to open the door, rather than fill out forms, with the result that millions who live and work in this country will go uncounted.

Let's not kid ourselves. Whether they are newcomers or native-born - and whether those who are immigrants are legal or undocumented - many immigrants will believe that they are being targeted by those who fear them and their growing presence in our society. This is not the first time that recent arrivals have been made unwelcome. Many of the same slurs now hurled at Hispanics, Asians, and other newcomers were once used against immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe, particularly Catholics and Jews. Nor is this the first time that some Americans wanted to count other Americans partially or not at all. Shamefully, the first tallies of this country's population counted most African Americans as only three-fifths of a person. Given our history, an accurate and inclusive census of every person is a civil rights imperative.

Whatever their backgrounds, all Americans share a common interest in a census that is on target and on time. As was said of another great national endeavor, Apollo 13, "Failure is not an option," and neither are divisive delays.