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Changing the Census? Don’t Even Think about It

Preparations for April’s 2010 Census are well underway. The federal government’s largest ever peacetime operation, the 23rd decennial headcount is a tightly choreographed effort involving years of planning, $14 billion and 700,000 staff.

After some fits and starts, the Census Bureau is ready to deliver an accurate census. However, an appropriations amendment just introduced by Sens. David Vitter (R-LA) and Robert Bennett (R-UT) could derail that outcome. The Senators want to bar the Census Bureau from conducting the census unless it adds questions on each person’s citizenship and immigration status.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the 2010 Census. Census results will drive congressional and Electoral College apportionment; legislative redistricting; voting and civil rights enforcement; the annual distribution of $500 billion in federal funds to U.S. communities; the siting of roads, health centers, and schools; response to disasters; and the location and hiring decisions of millions of businesses from mom-and-pop to Wal-Mart.

The census aims to count everyone, regardless of citizenship and immigration status. The amendment’s sponsors complain that the current approach to congressional apportionment is skewed because unauthorized immigrants are included. They want the census to identify the unauthorized in order to exclude them from the apportionment process.

But they are ignoring the Constitution itself. It requires a count of all “persons” residing in the United States, not just citizens or legal residents. The framers intended the census to be an inclusive count and so avoided the term “citizen” used elsewhere throughout the Constitution.

Additionally, the Census Bureau doesn’t ask about a person’s legal status to avoid intimidating immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, from participating in the census. While Census Bureau employees are held to strict standards of confidentiality, under threat of criminal penalty, many immigrants may still be reluctant. Charged with getting a full count of the U.S. population, the Census Bureau can’t afford additional risk that a significant number of people will not fill out the form.

In a country of 308 million people, getting a complete headcount is a gargantuan undertaking even when the number of questions (now ten) is small. Add a bitter politicized environment around immigration and it’s understandable why many immigrants, even those legally present, may not want to stand up to be counted.

In addition to compromising census accuracy, the Vitter-Bennett amendment would wreak havoc with census timing and cost.

Due to additional needs for testing, printing, and training, changing the census questionnaire would delay the census well beyond the congressionally mandated date of April 1, 2010. This, in turn, would postpone the Census Bureau delivery of population figures to states for apportionment and redistricting beyond April 1, 2011, as required by law. Ironically, in their fervor to deny congressional representation to non-citizens, Senators Vitter and Bennett would disrupt the entire apportionment process.

Then there is the added cost to taxpayers. Extending and remaking the massive census operation over many months will create, in the words of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee chair, a “financial challenge that borders on . . . a nightmare.” The Vitter-Bennett amendment would waste hundreds of millions of dollars already spent on testing, printing, training, and advertising and require spending hundreds of millions more.

Barring a constitutional amendment to alter practices in place since 1790, if Sens. Vitter and Bennett wanted to add new census questions, they should have said so in 2007—when the Census Bureau, as required by law, gave Congress the opportunity to review the questionnaire. Congress put this review process in place precisely to avoid the disastrous consequences of the eleventh-hour changes now being proposed.

The Vitter-Bennett attempt to remake the census less than six months before Census Day might have one positive impact. It provides Congress with further incentive to undertake major reform to the nation’s immigration policy. Congress should do so without the collateral damage of a delayed, less accurate, more costly census.

  • Andrew Reamer focuses on federal statistical policy and programs; sources and uses of socioeconomic data; state and local economic analysis and strategy; and the geography of innovation and other regional studies.

  • Audrey Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, U.S. immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. She has written extensively on U.S. immigration trends, including immigrant integration, undocumented migration, naturalization and citizenship, and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States.