Senate Votes to Prohibit Counting of Illegal Aliens in Census

Times Staff Writer

In a blow to California and other states with large immigrant populations, the Senate voted Friday to bar the Census Bureau from counting illegal aliens in the 1990 population count.

“I’m stunned,” said Santa Ana City Council member Miguel A. Pulido. Pulido and other Santa Ana council members say that the 1980 census substantially under-counted its population at 215,000. The city has been lobbying hard to have its illegal alien population--estimated at 50,000--included in the 1990 count.

The Senate’s action came on a voice vote, despite arguments from the Bush Administration and other opponents that it is both unconstitutional and unworkable. Just before the voice vote, the senators voted, 50 to 41, against killing the proposal to bar aliens from the count.


A Senate-House conference committee will decide whether the prohibition against including illegal immigrants in the census totals will be retained or dropped from a $17.4-billion appropriations bill for the State, Justice and Commerce departments.

Would Urge Veto

Even if the prohibition survives, Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher has said that he would ask President Bush to veto any bill that comes to his desk with such a provision.

At stake are the number of seats in Congress for California, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other states that will be reapportioned on the basis of next year’s census.

Federal aid to states also is frequently based on population counts, so millions of dollars in grants and other funds made available on a per capita basis would be affected.

State officials have said California could lose up to $300 million in federal aid if illegal aliens were uncounted. Santa Ana has estimated its potential loss at $2 million a year.

In addition, Pulido and county advocates for poor Latino residents expressed concern that the decision would promote fear and intimidation in the community.

In 1985, before the federal immigration reform act, the number of illegal aliens in Orange County was estimated at 229,000, ranking it just behind Los Angeles County in California, a county official said. There are no current estimates.

“For example, we have close to 50,000 people in the city that have qualified through the amnesty process for legal residency,” Pulido said. “Those individuals, when asked or challenged about their status, can be legitimately concerned. I think the census’s attempt to question them could be misconstrued as an attempt by the immigration service to get information.”

Councilman John Acosta said he “was saddened” by the Senate’s action because the city was determined “to count every single person, and I know that (now) we’re going to to suffer from this monetarily.”

But Pulido said he believes the House of Representatives will not allow the prohibition to survive, especially since it killed an earlier, similar effort.

The issue cuts across partisan lines in the Senate, with Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) arguing against the White House position on grounds that including illegal aliens in the census is unfair to American citizens.

Loss of Seats Cited

“Some states will lose congressional seats because of illegal aliens,” Dole argued. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said that Georgia and Indiana both lost House seats after the 1980 Census, and that California and New York--centers of illegal immigration--each gained seats.

“The bottom line is illegal aliens ought to be deported, not counted,” Cochran said.

Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) countered that excluding illegal residents from the decennial census is unfair to the states that have suffered from a huge influx of immigration beyond the legal limits.

“There are enormous additional costs for states who have had a surge of population,” Wilson said, adding that those states should receive additional federal aid to cope with the added problems.

The Senate’s action would also have an impact on smaller California cities without substantial Latino populations because census population figures play an important role in Community Development Block Grant formulas, said Don Vestal, Westminster city planner.

Westminster is following a recommendation by the Census Bureau to form a Complete Count Committee of officials and community leaders to help ensure cooperation from all city residents.

“We feel that it’s in our best interest to get as complete a count as we can,” he said.

The Community Development Block Grant formula, among other things, Vestal said, includes use of income figures and percentage of lower income residents in the city. “In addition to just counting heads, they’re getting economic information of the city that will affect us in the future,” he added.

Gloria McDonough, director of Abrazar Center, an elderly-assistance center for Latinos in Westminster, said the senators’ action shows they have no understanding of the impact of illegal immigration to California communities.

“Whether you count them or not, the undocumented residents are still going to impact federal dollars in our community. And whether we like it or not they’re here and here to stay,” McDonough said.

In recent weeks, representatives from the census office in Santa Ana have visited such social centers as Abrazar and others and told center staff people that they intend to count “everyone, regardless of where they came from,” McDonough said.

“Their big thing was, ‘We do not care about the origins of where these people are from, but, more importantly, their impact to local economies,’ ” she said.

When asked to comment, census officials in Santa Ana referred media inquiries to the regional office in Van Nuys.

Adrian Dove, assistant regional director for the U.S. Census in charge of outreach, said that despite the Senate’s decision, the census bureau “really doesn’t know how to go about finding who was legal or illegal.”

“But we have a mandate to follow that law, and we would have to find out,” he said.

Opponents of a ban on counting illegal aliens said that a ban is impractical because the Census Bureau has already printed questionnaires that do not contain any question about legality of residence.

For 190 years, said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), the federal government has counted all inhabitants without regard to citizenship in accordance with the Constitution’s provisions. “Fiddling with the numbers” now will destroy confidence in the census results, he added.

The Senate’s action was sharply criticized by Undersecretary of Commerce Michael Darby, but he voiced hope that it would be reversed by a Senate-House conference.

“There really is a widespread realization that this would not only be unconstitutional but literally impossible,” Darby said.

But he added that he is “optimistic, cautiously optimistic,” that House conferees would resist the Senate-approved ban and not force Bush to veto the legislation.

Mario Moreno, head of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said he was shocked by the Senate’s decision. “It is going to have a dramatic and disastrous impact in the Hispanic community,” Moreno said. “People are going to be discouraged from participating.”

A Census Bureau spokesman took a more dispassionate view, however.

“Our position is that we count everybody at their place of residence,” said bureau spokesman James Gorman. “If Congress passes a law that says we will or will not count people, we will do what it says.”