Hispanics Dodge a Bullet

Hispanics would have been hurt in critical ways by the proposed change to the census, writes Louis Caldera.

Senator David Vitter (R-LA) was one of the conservatives who proposed adding a question to the census that asked whether the respondent was a U.S. citizen. (AP/Susan Walsh)
Senator David Vitter (R-LA) was one of the conservatives who proposed adding a question to the census that asked whether the respondent was a U.S. citizen. (AP/Susan Walsh)

The Hispanic community breathed a sigh of relief last Thursday when Senate Democrats defeated an attempt to change the 2010 census. Conservatives had proposed adding a question to the census—which every 10 years is supposed to count every person living in the United States—that essentially asked “For every person living in your home, is he or she a citizen, a lawful immigrant of the U.S., or undocumented?” They wanted to use that information to exclude all noncitizens, legal or undocumented, from being counted in deciding how many elected representatives the people of each state are entitled to have in Congress. This would have hurt the Hispanic community in critical ways, including reducing its political representation at the federal level.

The idea of asking these questions originated with the notoriously anti-immigrant organization FAIR, which wanted to reduce the number of congressional representatives who care about the well-being of Hispanic and other immigrant communities and who advocate for their interests, including those who support comprehensive immigration reform. Their view is that representatives in Congress should represent only citizens and that states with large immigrant populations should be penalized for welcoming immigrants.

Even though the census assures everyone that their answers will be confidential, many Hispanics would likely not have responded at all, or would have responded incompletely if it meant reporting to the government that a family member in their household was here illegally. That would have led to an undercounting of Hispanics even larger than is usually the case.

Hispanics, the poor, the homeless, and migrant agricultural workers are already considered “hard to count” populations, and every census millions of Hispanics go uncounted. This undercount costs the Hispanic community because federal funding for schools, health care clinics, public transportation, job training, and many other benefits the Hispanic community counts on are distributed according to population-based formulas that use census information to determine how much money each state and community gets. Not participating in the census, therefore, hurts Hispanic kids and communities.

But the real danger for the Hispanic community was the proposal to exclude noncitizens, including millions of Hispanics, from the population counts used every 10 years to determine how many elected congressional representatives each state gets based on its share of the total U.S. population—not just its citizen population. That information is then used to draw congressional and state legislative districts, and local city council and school board districts. The U.S. Supreme Court has said clearly that all legislative districts must be as equal in population as possible and that Hispanic and African-American communities must be allowed to elect representatives of their own choosing if such districts can be created. These decisions have led to the election today of 29 Hispanic and 42 African-American members of Congress.

But these congressmen and women represent districts that are home to large numbers of immigrants. Excluding these immigrants, including many in the process of becoming citizens, from the process of determining the number and the location of congressional and state legislative seats would have seriously reduced the representation of the Hispanic community in Congress and in the country’s state legislatures and local offices.

UCLA demographer Dr. Leo Estrada estimates that in states like California it takes at least 40 percent of the voters in a given electoral district to be Hispanic for a Hispanic candidate to win the election. When not all Hispanics—citizens or noncitizens—are counted, there are fewer electoral seats at all levels of government that can be created in which Hispanics can make up 40 percent of the voters.

Precisely at the time when the Hispanic community is growing and in need of more representatives who can deliver better public services in areas as broad as education, job training, affordable housing, and enforcing antidiscrimination laws, conservatives were plotting ways of reducing Hispanic political representation in Congress and elsewhere.

Now that the conservatives’ measure has been defeated, the Hispanic community must redouble its efforts to be counted in the census, to convince more immigrants to become citizens, to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, and to vote for a better future for our children and our country.

Louis Caldera is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he writes and contributes on higher education, national security, and issues affecting Hispanic Americans.

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