Should the Census Count Illegal Immigrants?

A growing group of Republicans say "no," but others warn against replicating the mistakes of the 3/5 compromise

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A battle is brewing over the 2010 census. A growing number of Republicans don't want illegal immigrants to be counted among the final totals in the census, and they've introduced legislation in the Senate that would ask respondents to declare their citizenship. The stakes are high, because the population data from the census helps allocate congressional seats and federal resources to states. Republicans like Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, one of the co-authors of the bill, says the process isn't fair to states with small numbers of illegal immigrants. "We lost a seat in 2000," Vitter told The Wall Street Journal. The bill has roiled the left. With historical analogies to the three-fifths compromise, which cooled political tensions between north and south by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person, they argue that politics should be kept out of the census.

  • Haven't We Learned Our Lesson? At Salon, Gabriel Winant says the moral and political lessons from the three-fifths compromise are that it's futile and wrong to allow the government to ignore people who live within its borders. "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," Winant writes. "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.
  • How to Ruin the Census  The New York Times says it's "a settled matter of law that the Constitution requires the census to count everyone in the country, without regard to citizenship, and that those totals are used to determine the number of representatives." They say the bill is an obvious attempt by Republicans to take seats from states with large immigrant populations. And they argue that a citizenship question makes immigrants less likely to respond to the census and therefore "shortchanges the cities and states where they live."

  • Illegal Immigrants Are Going to Take Your Vote  Michelle Malkin wrote in April. And Malkin says it's President Bush's fault, for funding groups like ACORN who helped expand voter rolls in heavily Latino areas. "During the eight years of the Bush administration, groups such as ACORN received millions of dollars in subsidies for their racial and corporate shakedown activities," Malkin wrote.
The pro-amnesty faction of the GOP pandered to unions such as the SEIU and ethnic lobbying groups such as Voto Latino seeking to boost their membership rolls. Now, Republicans can only stand by helplessly while the political opponents they helped fund use the census to help wipe them off the electoral map. You reap what you sow.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.