Citizenship question is crucial for a fair, updated 2020 Census

Citizenship question is crucial for a fair, updated 2020 Census
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The 2020 Census is just two years away. While most Americans think of the Census as decennial head count, it much more than that. The founders of our republic considered the Census so important that they wrote the requirement to conduct it once every 10 years into our Constitution.

The Census tells us not just how many of us there are, but who we are, where we live, and how we will be represented in federal, state, and local legislative bodies. It also greatly influences how public resources will be allocated over the ensuing 10 years. Thus, the Census is not just a compilation of data to be analyzed by demographers, but a 10-year blueprint that will affect countless important policies. As such, the legal battles over the Census start long before that first form is printed.

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In recent decades, immigration has become an increasingly important factor in shaping the demography and the population distribution of the United States. In 1960, the last Census before the sweeping overhaul that serves as the basis of our immigration policy to this day, the foreign-born population was 9.7 million, or about 5.4 percent of our population. Fifty-five years later, the foreign born population had swelled to 43.2 million, or about 13.4 percent of U.S. population. Those numbers are projected to double by 2065.

Yet, while immigration is undoubtedly the most important factor affecting the size and composition of the U.S.  population, recent Censuses have assiduously avoided collecting data about respondents’ immigration status. In fact, the mere suggestion that such data be collected on the long form American Community Survey not only triggers apoplexy among certain interest groups, but sets off a procession of lawyers marching to the nearest federal courthouse to prevent questions from even being asked.

For many reasons it is important to get a clearer picture of the foreign-born population. Governments at all levels need know where their new residents will be coming from, how many new kids can be expected to show up in public school classrooms, how many patients are likely to use hospital emergency rooms, what social services they will require, and other essential information.

It is also important to have data about the portion of the foreign born who are here illegally. Right now, the best we can do is guess that it is in the 11 to 15 million range. Besides the enormity of that estimate (the low end of that range is roughly equivalent to the population of the entire state of Pennsylvania), the presence of large numbers of illegal aliens has real life consequences for American citizens.

Illegal aliens, and where they live, have a significant impact on how the rest of us are governed. Legislative representation is a zero sum proposition as the number of seats in Congress and state legislatures remain fixed. At least since the 1980 Census, the presence of large numbers of illegal aliens in some parts of the country has contributed to some states gaining political representation, while other states with fewer illegal aliens have lost seats.

The Supreme Court has ruled that illegal aliens may be counted for apportioning seats in legislative bodies. Ruling against citizens in Texas who claimed that granting representation to illegal aliens who are ineligible to vote diluted their own franchise, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in 2016:

“Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates — children, their parents, even their grandparents, for example, have a stake in a strong public-education system — and in receiving constituent services, such as help navigating public-benefits bureaucracies.”

As Justice Ginsburg noted, the consequences of illegal immigration go beyond whether more seats are allocated to California or New York at the expense of Michigan or Montana. It’s also about how critical federal funds are distributed. Money that is allocated to schools in The Bronx, or public health care in Fresno, is money that is not available to schools in Detroit or rural clinics in Montana.

Information is important not just for its own sake, but because it is an essential component of effective government. Data on immigrants, legal and illegal, who constitute the bulk of population growth in the United States, is perhaps the most important information the upcoming Census could provide.

Refusing to collect vital information about immigration status is an act of willful blindness intended to deny the American public and lawmakers a complete picture of the impact immigration policies are having on the nation. Advocates for the status quo will likely pull out all the stops to keep it that way in 2020 because keeping the American people in the dark serves their political and economic interests.

Ira Mehlman is media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).