Vitter sparks battle over illegal immigrants, Census

The Louisiana Republican introduces an amendment that brings up issues as old as the government itself

Published October 15, 2009 4:30PM (EDT)

Census-taking has always been a politically fraught process. It’s a point that some political theorists love to make endlessly: When it comes to running a government, knowledge -- in the form of data -- is power. Hence, unearthing the basic facts about who makes up the United States inevitably has a direct impact on who rules the country and how. The decennial count tends to cut right along our deep political cleavages.

Lately, something about the census really seems to really get conservatives’ juices flowing. Of course there’s Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., who’s urged constituents to give the minimum cooperation to census-takers. She and Glenn Beck have taken care to issue dire warnings -- incorrect at the time, and now moot -- about ACORN’s role in administering the count. And, of course, there’s an immigration issue. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is currently pushing to stop the census from counting undocumented immigrants, as it has done for years.

Vitter’s argument is that counting undocumented immigrants yields an undeserved windfall of representation for states that happen to have a lot of them. Because the census determines how the 435 congressional districts (and the 538 electoral votes) are divided among the states, immigration hawks like Vitter claim that non-citizens unfairly tilt representation toward their states. Says the senator, “I don't think states which have particularly large noncitizen populations should have more say and more clout in Congress, and that states like Louisiana that don't should be penalized.”

The Census Bureau says that adding Vitter’s question now would delay the whole process immensely and cost millions of extra dollars. Currently, the census does ask about immigration status, but in its more frequent American Communities Survey. This is a statistical sample, and because sampling is effective, it's the basis of most of the useful information the census collects. But there also has to be a comprehensive, every-household-in-the-country questionnaire that determines population, and this is where Vitter wants the immigration question asked.

The White House opposes the idea, and the Senate leadership pretty clearly wants to avoid a vote. Things appear likely to come to a head Thursday, when the Senate leadership seeks cloture on the appropriations bill that Vitter is hoping to amend.

But liberals aren’t just against the amendment because of its logistical implications. Just because the census doesn’t count certain people doesn’t mean, of course, that they aren’t there. Whether or not they are included in the census and their numbers are used to reapportion congressional seats, undocumented immigrants will continue to use roads, schools and hospitals. The states where they live in large numbers -- California, for example -- rely on federal dollars to provide many key services, which are divvied out according to population. So not counting people who are actually there is, in a certain sense, a way of cutting them off from public services. This is something that anti-immigration conservatives have attempted before, rather more directly, and at immense political cost.

There is also a broader philosophical issue at stake. The United States has wrestled in the past with how to recognize the presence of people whose legal status as citizens the government didn't acknowledge. There is an obvious, but imperfect, parallel here with the infamous Three-fifths Compromise included in the Constitution.

The origins of the compromise were in the ratification process of the Constitution; the southern delegates wanted the slaves held in their states to be counted in full by the census, multiplying the power of the slave-owners’ votes. (The slaves themselves, of course, didn’t get to cast the votes.) The northern delegates, unhappy about the idea of extending the power of the plantation owners, bargained them down to counting the slaves as three-fifths of a person each.

Obviously, the idea of counting someone as only a fraction of a person is repugnant. But at the heart of the three-fifths debate compromise is the question of who should get to speak on behalf of people deemed unqualified to participate in politics directly. And that’s where the 18th century has something to say to the 21st.

We’d unanimously reject the idea of slavery now, of course. But we continue to argue furiously over whether and how to incorporate undocumented immigrants into the polity. And it’s Vitter and the other critics of counting undocumented immigrants in the census who would also block them from a path toward legal status and ultimately, citizenship.

Unlike in the case of the Three-fifths Compromise, the politicians who gain -- unfairly, as Vitter would have it -- from the census’ counting of non-voters, and hence are in the position to “speak for” them, actually tend to be concerned with providing rights and services to their currently disqualified constituents. Vitter and company, though apparently analogous to the old northern delegates here in opposing counting the undocumented, are actually making an argument for keeping the government blind to the needs and concerns of a class of people living in its borders.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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