Impractical and Unconstitutional

Sen. Vitter Tries to Use the Census to Further Anti-Immigration Agenda

Sen. Vitter is trying to use the Census to further his anti-immigration agenda, potentially costing the United States millions, writes Gebe Martinez.

A Census volunteer runs a game at the Minnesota State Fair to promote the 2010 Census. (AP/Craig Lassig)
A Census volunteer runs a game at the Minnesota State Fair to promote the 2010 Census. (AP/Craig Lassig)

Some politicians come up with dumb ideas. Some come up with impractical ideas that would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

And then there are those lawmakers with crazy proposals that would violate the United States Constitution.

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has hit the trifecta by playing politics with the 2010 Census. Vitter is demanding that Congress cut off funding for the 2010 Census unless the survey asks an additional question: whether the respondent is a U.S. citizen.

The reasons for the citizen-versus-immigrant maneuver are obvious.

Igniting a divisive debate that rallies the immigration restrictionists serves to drive down participation in the census by foreign-born citizens and other immigrants, effectively disenfranchising them.

Vitter wants to only count citizens when the census is used to redraw the 435 congressional districts because huge immigrant population increases in some states during the last decade will change the proportional representation, resulting in a loss of House seats in about eight states, including Vitter’s home state of Louisiana.

Instead of having a smart discussion about how to deal with undocumented immigrants, the senators have decided to ignore non-citizens for political self-preservation and destroy the integrity of the census process. They would rather target immigrants than follow the Constitution, which requires that every person be counted, not every “citizen.”

Regrettably, Vitter has no qualms about the politics of division; about treating non-citizens as if they do not exist politically. “We are not going to know the difference between citizens and noncitizens. I think that is not fine, I think that is crazy, and I think it will lead to some dangerous results,” Vitter said during a recent speech on the Senate floor.

Here is what is really crazy and dangerous; all of the following will happen if Vitter gets his way and the citizenship question is added.

  • The Census survey would have to be delayed and not occur in April, as mandated by law.
  • New forms would have to be printed at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars because millions of the original forms already have been printed. Research, planning, and preparation for the 2010 Census cost $7 billion.
  • An “untested” question at this late date “would put the accuracy of the enumeration in all communities at risk,” eight former directors of the U.S. Census Bureau said recently in response to Vitter’s proposal.
  • The census would not follow the constitutional requirement to count every person, regardless of citizenship status.
  • Excluding non-citizens for purposes of political representation is a sad reminder of our pre-Civil War history when slaves were counted as “three-fifths” of a person.
  • House seats in the states of Louisiana, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and North Carolina would be preserved at the expense of high growth states such as California, Florida and Texas.

Vitter’s political trick temporarily stalled Senate floor action on the annual spending bill for commerce, justice, and science programs, but it appears likely that he will fail in changing the census questionnaire.

Yet if he thinks that he achieved political success by calling attention to anti-immigrant sentiments and proposing wasteful government spending, that’s just plain crazy.

Gebe Martinez is a Senior Writer and Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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