The census as scare tactic


Maybe the Americans for Legal Immigration political action committee does not understand how the census works. That would explain its call for legislation to allow U.S. Census data to be used to “detect, detain and deport” illegal immigrants. The goal, according to ALIPAC leader William Gheen, is to keep illegal immigrants from “stealing” taxpayer resources and “diminishing representation” for legal Americans.

Right. Except that none of the 10 questions on the 2010 census form pertains to citizenship, legal residency or country of birth. Rather, the form asks questions such as how many people live in a residence, their names, dates of birth and race. So there’s no way to use the census information to identify or expel illegal immigrants.

And in fact, that’s not what ALIPAC is really trying to do. What the group truly wants is to stop illegal immigrants from participating in the census. It’s a scare tactic: Spread the word that filling out census forms could get you deported and watch the participation rates plummet. As census stunts go, spreading rumors of a count-and-deport campaign is pretty clever -- more effective than previous efforts to have illegal immigrants excluded from the national population count. That proposal died when its proponents realized that the Constitution, in Article I, Section 2, calls for an enumeration of all persons in the country.

It is true that the presence of 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. will affect how many members of Congress each state gets, which is determined by the census. But it’s worth noting that there’s nothing new about this debate. In antebellum America, the issue was slavery. To the ire of free states, millions of slaves (each counted as three-fifths of a person) were included in the census even though slaves were not citizens and were considered to be property. The count bolstered Southern representation in the House and became a decisive factor in numerous legislative contests.

Now, 145 years after the Civil War, we are still debating how and when to count people who are not citizens. This time around, one of the strongest arguments for counting illegal immigrants is that states have no power to regulate immigration and yet are required by the federal government to spend significant local tax dollars on services for illegal immigrants. The Supreme Court has ruled, correctly in our view, that illegal immigrant children have the right to attend school, and Congress has determined that all residents have a right to emergency medical care.

As for the count-and-deport proposal, the best argument against it is that it won’t work. Enforcing laws against employing illegal immigrants and increasing the number of visas for legal job-seekers are much better strategies -- not interfering with an accurate count of the nation’s population.