The illegal immigrant counts


Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, has introduced legislation that, if passed, would instruct the U.S. Census Bureau not to take into account illegal immigrants and other noncitizens in the 2010 census. I’m all for it. Furthermore, I propose that the government no longer recognize deficits in budgets, record violent crimes in police reports, acknowledge casualties of war or count -- let alone give proper names! -- to hurricanes in weather reports.

Vitter’s last-minute proposal -- census questionnaires, which are scheduled to be sent out in the spring, have already been printed -- is the latest in the political right’s increasingly absurdist “fight” against illegal immigration. I put “fight” in quotes because these tactics actually do nothing to solve the problem of illegal immigration. Indeed, other than deprive the country’s three most populous states of more congressional seats, Vitter’s amendment would simply continue the restrictionists’ strategy of pretending illegal immigration can be solved by depriving people of basic rights or, in this case, refusing to even acknowledge their existence.

In 21st century America, most fair-minded people know that it’s simply not cool to judge large groups of people as inherently inferior or immoral based on race or cultural practices. In this multiculti era, even fanatics will avoid being called racists.


And that’s the beauty of taking a strong position against “illegals.” That brand is good cover for fanaticism. I mean, my goodness, how can anyone defend something or -- someone -- that is illegal! Try disagreeing with a rabid restrictionist and, before he accidentally blurts out a nasty racial epithet, he’ll let you have it with a rather brilliant rhetorical question: “What is it about illegal that you don’t understand?”

Let me say it again: I am against the idea of open borders. I believe our nation needs to have strong borders with clear rules and regulations as to who can enter and become members of our club. I also understand that global utopianism notwithstanding, sovereign states are the guarantors of our rights and that, by definition, these states are obliged to decide who can and cannot claim membership.

This goes double for nations that provide entitlements. The state not only protects us but provides us with some level of resources, i.e. public goods such as education, unemployment benefits, Medicare, etc. It makes sense, then, that if we want the state to provide us with these goods, we must accept that some form of exclusion is necessary. I understand and believe that not everyone can enjoy the benefits of U.S. citizenship. Like restrictionists, I therefore believe that some forms of exclusion are acceptable.

That said, the capaciousness of our Constitution grants basic protections to all people within our borders, even those who do not enjoy the privileges of citizenship. In other words, even if we deny noncitizens political and civil rights, the principles of our Constitution require that we grant them certain human rights -- some level of personal safety and dignity. When it comes to the census, what that suggests is that even though we may not count them as full members of our polity, we are still obliged to count them as individuals who occupy physical space within our national boundaries.

Discounting the existence of illegal immigrants not only has ethical significance, it has a number of practical consequences, not least of which is that a well-regulated nation needs to know how many people reside within its territory. Even rabid restrictionists would agree that, say, a police department might benefit from knowing how many individuals live in a given district. That means that some level of official recognition of illegal immigrants is required for the proper operation of government.

Part of the difficulty in dealing with illegal immigration is that it is a relatively new concept. Prior to the imposition of numerical immigration quotas in the 1920s, there was really no such thing as a class of people who were deemed “illegal.” Sure, before the ‘20s, certain laws excluded Chinese or classes of “undesirable aliens” such as paupers or anarchists, but it was the imposition of comprehensive numerical limits that gave us the modern “illegal immigrant.”


Ninety years later, we still have no idea what to do with the millions of individuals who are in the U.S. without papers. The right wing can conveniently demonize them and seek to banish them from official records, but how does that help us deal with the millions already here or keep even one more person from hopping the border?

Columbia University historian Mae M. Ngai has called the illegal immigrant the “impossible subject,” a person who exists but doesn’t, a person “who cannot be, and a problem that cannot be solved,” at least as we currently structure ourselves. Illegal immigrants live with us, yet we do not count them in. We hire them, we even take their tax money, and yet we don’t enter them in the ledger. The only thing Vitter’s proposal would do is have us close our eyes just a little bit tighter.