Over the past couple of weeks, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has been trying to sell his and Sen. Robert Bennett’s (R-UT) amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill which would require the US Census Bureau to add a question about citizenship to its 2010 survey. Today, Vitter continued claiming that states with many immigrants would steal the representatives of states with few immigrants if noncitizens are not excluded from congressional apportionment decisions. However, there isn’t any language in the amendment stipulating any change in the way representatives are apportioned. And if there was, Vitter would be directly challenging the US Constitution.
Vitter’s argument is based on the misguided premise that the founding fathers always intended that only citizens should be counted by Census officials for the purposes of congressional apportionment:
I believe that when we use the Census for Congressional re-districting for determining how many US House seats each state gets, we should count citizens, but we should not count in that context, non-citizens — including illegal aliens…I don’t think the founding fathers set up a democracy — and in many ways the most important Democratic institution in history, the US Congress — to represent noncitizens. Why aren’t we adding in the entire population of France, or Belgium, or Brazil? For obvious reasons, because this is a democracy to represent citizens of the United States.
However, as Gabriel Winant of Salon points out, “the 18th century has something to say to the 21st.” Winant explains that the issue of counting noncitizens came up in the Three-fifths Compromise which stipulated that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person. After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment granted former slaves citizenship and established that representatives would be apportioned according to “the whole number of persons in each State.” It’s unlikely that our founding fathers and their predecessors naively overlooked a loophole in the 14th Amendment’s broad language that would allow noncitizens to be counted, as Vitter would like to think. Surely they weren’t blind to the fact that millions of immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and various regions of what would become Germany were rapidly emigrating to the US during the nation’s first era of mass immigration. Children, ex-felons, legal residents, and several other nonvoters are also included in the census apportionment data. These non-voters aren’t counted due to a mistake or oversight. Their presence is acknowledged because it helps paint an accurate portrait of a state’s demographic makeup and population density that’s key to effective and adequate representation.
Vitter’s amendment only seeks to compel the US Census to include a question on citizenship because changing congressional apportionment would be unconstitutional. The truth is, Vitter is probably aware of the fact that the question in itself will dissuade noncitizens from participating. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, explains, “Already the public fears that the Census is too intrusive.” Asking about a person’s citizenship “would raise more questions in the public mind about how confidential the Census is.”
Meanwhile, Vitter is supposedly arguing on behalf of many of the states that have benefited from a recent influx of undocumented immigrants in terms of population growth. Moreover, the non-participation of immigrants could lead to inaccurate demographic information and result in costly mistakes in infrastructure, education, and healthcare planning. Changing the census could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. For those reasons the Census Bureau, the Obama administration, and Senate leadership all adamantly oppose Vitter’s amendment. Last night, under pressure, Vitter at least dropped the language in his Amendment which would’ve required the US Census to ask participants about their immigration status.