Whether the 2010 census should have 10 questions on it, as it’s currently written, or 11, as Sens. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) and David Vitter (R-La.) suggest, seems a simple enough issue.
Even though 100 million forms have already been printed, the census director recently told a Senate panel that reprinting the forms would cost about $22 million, not exactly a princely sum in Washington these days. Although supporting materials and training manuals would also have to be changed, Bennett said on the Senate floor recently that adding an 11th question would be “not that big a deal.”
But to Democratic activists and civil rights organizations, it is a very big deal, because Vitter (pictured) and Bennett want the 11th question to ask respondents if they if are American citizens.
The debate over that question, and whether legal or illegal immigrants should count toward states’ apportionment in Congress, is the subject of an amendment by the two lawmakers to an appropriations bill now pending in the Senate.
It is also the source of a vicious proxy fight over illegal immigration that previews the anger, animosity and legal challenges that await the larger battle over comprehensive immigration reform that President Obama has said he’ll bring forward later this year.
“I believe that’s a basic requirement for the next census — including illegal immigration, including properly handling congressional apportionment,” Vitter said in the Senate as he explained his amendment. “Many states will lose congressional representation, which such states would not have otherwise lost, thereby violating the constitutional principle of ‘one man, one vote.’ “
To press his case further, Vitter wrote a letter last week to 17 senators, warning them that their states will loose seats in Congress if the census form is not changed. “If the current census plan goes ahead, the inclusion of non-citizens toward apportionment will artificially increase the population count in certain states,” Vitter wrote. The states likely to be negatively affected would be Louisiana, Iowa, Indiana, Mississippi, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina and North Carolina.
To prevent that, the Vitter-Bennett bill would withhold funds for the census until the forms are changed. After that, only U.S. citizens would be counted to decide how many representatives each state will get in Congress. A note on the form reminds people that they are required by law to answer truthfully, and Bennett has said that the information is confidential and cannot be used for immigration enforcement purposes later.
Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the New Democrat Network, opposes the measure. “We essentially went to war over this question as a country,” Rosenberg said. “The Civil War was fought over how we treat slaves and whether they’re whole people or not. The country made a resolution around these questions, which is that everyone would be counted in the reapportionment. It is not something Congress can override through law. Congress does not have the ability to change this. They’d have to change the Constitution.”
For the non-scholars out there, Article I of that document says that states shall be represented in Congress by apportioning seats based on “Adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.”
After the Civil War, the “three-fifths” language was changed to “whole person” and ratified as the 14th amendment in 1868.
Beyond the constitutional question, a gander at census forms since 1790 (the first year a once-a-decade count was taken) shows why Vitter and Bennett’s call has become so controversial.
From references to “mulattos,” “idiotics” and “Indians, non-taxed,” the census forms of years past serve as a cultural history of the country’s perceptions about race, class, gender and the value of a person to the nation.
That 1790 census asked each household for the number of “free white males, free white females and slaves.” Thirty years later, census marshals began to distinguish between enslaved blacks and “free colored persons.” In 1840, questions were added to count the number of “insane” and idiotic” people.
The 1850 form included a special schedule for slaveholders, with instructions to census marshals that “the color of the slaves should be noted”; that “those who have absconded in the last year and those who have been recovered” should be counted; and that notes should be made carefully on “any perceptible African blood” because “important scientific results depend on the determination of this class.”
In the 1880 census, well after slavery had ended, enumerators were told to distinguish carefully between housekeepers and “housewives, who have no gainful employment.” During the Industrial Revolution, census takers began asking extensive questions about a person’s citizenship, including whether they intended to become a U.S. citizen. The 1900 form instructed: “write ‘Pa” (for papers).” As recently as 1970, a question asked, “Is this person naturalized?”
Bennett told Politics Daily that the census already asks the legal-status question on some of its forms (sent out annually to about 1 million households) and that his amendment would only relate to Congressional apportionment and would not affect federal funding allocations.
“Funding is available based on total people and that’s the way it should be, because if a state has 5 million illegal immigrants and is proving services for them, the federal dollars for those programs should be made available for those 5 million people,” Bennett said. “That’s not the issue — the issue is apportionment in Congress. Citizens and legal aliens.” He added, “I have had some Democrats say to me you’ve raised a very worthwhile question, but not to the point that they’re willing to co-sponsor it.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is a co-sponsor of the amendment and stressed in a census oversight hearing this month that counting illegal and legal immigrants and stripping them out for apportionment is a matter of basic fairness.
After going through the list of states that he said would lose seats in Congress if other states count the number of immigrants toward their total population, Coburn said, “It’s not about partisan issues and it’s not about state issues. It’s about doing what our Constitution says.”
But like the question of health benefits for illegal immigrants that flared during this summer’s health care debate, the question of counting immigrants toward apportionment has become a fierce partisan issue.
On Tuesday morning, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) sent out an action alert, urging members to call their senators to vote for the amendment. “We can stop the amnesty lobby from preventing a vote on this amendment,” the alert said. “But we need your help! Here’s what you can do to ensure that the federal government finally obtains an accurate count of the illegal alien population.”
At the other end of the spectrum, nearly a dozen civil rights groups co-sponsored a press conference this week denouncing the Vitter amendment. Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, attended the event and said the amendment “echoes a shameful period when the census counted most African Americans as three-fifths of a person.” He went on to say that “the ideals that our country was founded on, and the sacrifice and struggle of generations of Americans to realize them, deserve better than this.”
Although the House has already passed the appropriations bill that the Vitter amendment would be attached to, a senior congressional staff member said that Democrats are aware of the census measure and discussing it warily. “There is a lot of concern among the California Democratic Congressional delegation,” the aide said.
Vitter has charged that Harry Reid is stalling the entire Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill to avoid taking a vote on his amendment, knowing some Democrats do not want to go on the record as being against a measure seen as tough on illegal immigration.
“I find it sad and telling that the majority leader is going to such lengths to avoid having a vote on that simple concept, that simple idea,” Vitter said.
Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau fired back, saying that Republicans had offered several amendments to the appropriations bill that Democrats find objectionable and have not come to an agreement on: “Senator Vitter is flattering himself and making it sound like his is the only amendment.”
Mollineau continued: “For someone who says he is a fiscal conservative, he is trying to insert a provision that would cost millions and millions of dollars. He has no problem spending taxpayers’ dollars on something that is blatantly partisan.”
Democratic groups have used the delay on the bill to bombard senators with letters, phone calls and background documents with their objections to Vitter and Bennett’s measure. NDN’s Rosenberg said that he believes the delay may have doomed the amendment. “It is astonishing to me is that in the first year of the first African American presidency in out history, we are actually contemplating re-litigating Civil War-era decisions over how to count people in the census,” he said. “I think once senators understand what’s at stake here, I just don’t believe this is going to pass.”
The Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill is still pending in the Senate.