Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) filed an amendment Wednesday to require the census to interrogate Americans about their immigration status. The amendment proposes excluding non-citizens and undocumented immigrants from the records used to decide congressional apportionment, effectively reducing how much representation they receive in Congress.
The Census has never before included a question on legal status beyond citizenship, despite a similar attempt by Vitter before the 2010 Census. If his amendment passes, the Census Bureau would be forced to explicitly ask the people they survey about their immigration status. As a consequence, states with large numbers of noncitizens or undocumented immigrants who were previously counted by the census would likely receive a relatively smaller share of Congressional representation, muffling their voice in government and stripping political representation away from historically marginalized populations.
Vitter acknowledged this is his goal in a press release on Thursday, noting that the 2010 Census “took away a congressional seat from Louisiana, while states like Arizona, Florida and Texas who all have high numbers of illegal immigrants gained congressional seats.”
Besides depriving people of political representation, the amendment would also hinder the fundamental goal of the U.S. Census, which is to capture an adequate picture of the entire population, noncitizens included. Native and non-native residents alike will question the confidentiality of their responses if they are forced to divulge immigration status, likely deterring many people from participating in the census at all. Additionally, the Constitution requires that the census include “the whole number of persons” residing in the U.S. And if there was ever any ambiguity around what constitutes “residency,” the Justice Department has already cleared that up: in a 1989 letter to Congress, the department definitively stated that, according to the 14th Amendment, the census can’t exclude undocumented immigrants because it states that apportionment of members of the house must be determined by a full count of people in each state.
The census already has trouble accurately counting the nation’s approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants. Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior demographer with Pew Research Center, explains that a system of estimation must be used to capture the number of undocumented people in the U.S. because they rarely report their status in surveys or the census. Many legal immigrants also fear giving up sensitive personal information in case it puts undocumented family members at risk. Some undocumented immigrants may falsely believe it is illegal to respond to the census, as it is illegal for them to vote. Lacking English proficiency can also be an obstacle.
As the Chairman of the Senate Border Security Caucus, Senator Vitter has consistently pushed anti-immigration policies. He received a 100 percent approval rating from U.S. Border Control, a lobby that describes itself as determined to “stop amnesty; seal our borders against terrorism and illegal immigration; and, preserve our nation’s language, culture and American way of life for future generations.”
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.