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Why Counting Undocumented Immigrants In the Census Is Good for America

Undocumented immigrants and their families are an integral part of the social and economic fabric of our country. As such, they should be fully counted in our national census.
 
 
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Last week I participated in a debate for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in the 2010 census. I argue that a full count of undocumented immigrants and their families brings economic benefits to local communities that no one can afford to miss. I cite the role of population data in the allocation of billions in state and federal funding to local government for critical public programs and services. Without a full count of these immigrants, communities where they live won't receive adequate funding to staff health clinics, repair crumbling bridges and build parks.

In the opposing article, Phil Kent of Americans for Immigration Control doesn't mention the economic consequences of excluding the undocumented. He instead takes up the political implications of counting undocumented immigrants in population totals used for Congressional apportionment and redistricting, and says: "Counting millions of illegal immigrants will unquestionably and unconstitutionally increase the number of US House of Representatives members in some states and rob other states of their rightful representation."

I'll address Kent's first point: it is no secret that some states will gain House seats after next year's reapportionment process, and others will lose. This is how our political system works, and it's false to claim that this is because undocumented residents of one state have "stolen" representation from residents of another. Second, counting undocumented immigrants is not unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment explicitly states that all people in the United States are to be counted for distributing US representatives--this includes non-citizens and non-voters.

Unfortunately, Kent isn't alone in his misguided attempt to exclude millions of US residents from the census count. His statements come on the heels of this week's amendment to the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill by Senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Bob Bennett (R-UT). The amendment aims to add citizenship questions to the census, and exclude undocumented immigrants and other non-citizens from the apportionment and redistricting process. To inspire support for his amendment, Vitter states that counting the undocumented in apportionment totals rewards states with "large populations of illegals," while penalizing other states. If passed, the amendment could threaten the accuracy of the entire census. Adding citizenship questions will likely intimidate undocumented immigrants and other non-residents, and dissuade large groups from responding to the survey, undermining the count.

In the New York Post, Linda Chavez echoes an old conservative claim that counting non-citizens in legislative districts dilutes the votes of citizens and distorts our political process. Sure, undocumented immigrants are included in legislative districts, even though they are non-voters. But they are not the only group of non-voters counted, nor are they the largest; children, ex-felons and legal permanent residents are counted in redistricting totals, but none can vote. The census intentionally counts residents, not just voters to draw legislative districts, and this affects the relative power of an individual's vote in ways that have nothing to do with undocumented immigrants.

Chavez further argues that this year's efforts to encourage census response in immigrant communities is only a Democratic power play, supported by the Obama Administration, Hispanic advocacy organizations and unions. Encouraging census response is not some blue-state power grab, but a critical step in ensuring that communities can secure their fair share of federal funding and business investment for the next ten years. Undocumented immigrants and their families are an integral part of the social and economic fabric of our country--as such, they should be fully counted in our national census.

Afton Branche is a research assistant at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.

 
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