Will Illegals Be Down for the Count? : Plan to Omit Them in Census Lends Support to Job Sanctions

<i> Peter Skerry is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. This column is adapted from the current issue of the Public Interest. </i>

No one in Southern California needs reminding that the employer sanctions in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 have not done much to stem illegal immigration. A study released this week by the Urban Institute offers the latest evidence that sanctions have somewhat reduced but hardly stopped the influx. But because illegal immigrants are concentrated in Southern California and a few other regions, the rest of the nation goes about its business blithely unaware of this problem. Or so it seemed until last week.

What surfaced was the first of several political (as opposed to economic and cultural) problems presented by an unprecedented wave of illegal immigration. On an amendment to the Kennedy-Simpson immigration bill, the Senate voted to prohibit the inclusion of illegals in next year’s census, which is mandated by the Constitution in order to reapportion Congress. The measure was introduced by Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, one of 14 states that could lose a congressional seat in 1990 because of population shifts. The Library of Congress estimates that California and Texas will gain at least one seat each exclusively because of their growing illegal-alien populations. In 1980, the same factor resulted in California and New York each gaining a seat at Georgia’s and Indiana’s expense.

Such shifts are not likely to bring down the Republic. But they point to difficulties yet to come. When new districts are created to ensure the election of Latinos, they typically include large numbers of illegals and other noncitizens. Such concentrations of non-voters magnify the problem of low Latino turnout and reinforce the stereotype of a politically passive group. In November, 1986, for example, 24,726 votes were cast in East Los Angeles’ 56thAssembly District, compared with an average of 86,010 in Assembly districts statewide.

In essence, we are creating what the British call “rotten boroughs,” districts that benefit officeholders more than those they are presumed to represent.


Surprisingly, these are new problems for this nation of immigrants. Until the 1920s, our borders were more or less open and the phrase illegal alien had little practical meaning. At the turn of the century there were disputes over “unnaturalized aliens” biasing reapportionment in favor of urban states. But such tensions got resolved by increasing the size of the House, so that no state gained at the expense of any others. Then, in 1911, concerns about unwieldiness led Congress to fix its size at the present 435 seats.

Yet in 1920, when that ceiling was first to be implemented, reapportionment got caught up in renewed nativist fears. For the only time in its history, Congress failed to reapportion itself. When it finally got around to the job after the 1930 census, immigration had been virtually cut off by the Depression and by restrictive legislation earlier in the decade.

How, then, are we to think about these issues? Do illegal aliens have any legitimate interests to be represented? It is easy to say no, but once illegals are settled here--in large measure because we lack the political will to keep them out--their presence must be acknowledged. Yet does it make sense to install as their representatives assimilated members of the same ethnic group, whose interests do not necessarily coincide with those of illegals, and who are not accountable to “constituents” unable to press their interests, much less vote?

Simply excluding illegals from the census won’t address these questions. Nor will it address the economic forces that attract immigrants in the first place. Finally, such a measure appears to be unconstitutional: Article I, Section 2 prescribes a decennial enumeration of “persons,” not merely citizens or legal aliens. The early counts, starting in 1790, included those who at the time were ineligible to vote: women, slaves, some Indians and men who did not own property. The accumulated wisdom of the Census Bureau and various court decisions have only reinforced this inclusive view.


One drastic proposal to curtail illegal immigration is to end our practice of granting automatic citizenship to anyone born here, and offer it exclusively to the offspring of citizens and legal resident aliens. Yet this proposal, too, ignores the basic economic motives of immigrants, and its likely outcome would be an ever-expanding, self-perpetuating pool of illegals consigned to a permanent inferior status.

Tougher border enforcement seems a wiser course of action, but apparently we’re not up to the task. Erecting barriers along our borders runs against the American grain. Perhaps, then, we will want to re-focus on employer sanctions, providing for stiffer penalties and more secure identification than the birth certificates and drivers’ licenses now easily rented on the streets of Los Angeles.

Given the political dilemmas that lie ahead, we may have to reduce the number of illegals. For the nation that admits more permanent immigrants than any other, there is certainly nothing dishonorable in seeking to control, if not exactly eliminate, illegal immigration. Even Latino spokesmen and advocates for illegals will want to want to ponder the potential backlash signaled by last week’s Senate vote.