Should the U.S. Census Count Undocumented Immigrants?

Migrants approaching the U.S. border fence.

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The millions of undocumented immigrants living and often working in the United States are counted in the decennial U.S. census. Should they be?

As currently required by law, the U.S. Census Bureau attempts to count all persons in the U.S. living in residential structures, including prisons, dormitories, and similar "group quarters" in the official decennial census. People counted in the census include citizens, legal immigrants, non-citizen long-term visitors, and illegal (or undocumented) immigrants.

Why the Census SHOULD Count Undocumented Immigrants

Not counting undocumented aliens costs cities and states federal money, resulting in a reduction of services to all residents. The census count is used by Congress in deciding how to distribute more than $400 billion annually to state, local, and tribal governments. The formula is simple: the greater the population your state or city reports, the more federal money it might get.

Cities provide the same level of services — think police, fire, and emergency medical treatment — to undocumented immigrants as they do to U.S. citizens. In some states like California, undocumented immigrants attend public schools. In 2004, the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated the cost to California cities for education, health care, and incarceration of illegal immigrants at $10.5 billion per year.

According to one study released by the U.S. Census Monitoring Board, a total of 122,980 people went uncounted in Georgia during the 2000 census. As a result, the state lost out on some $208.8 million in federal funding through 2012, about $1,697 per uncounted person.

Why the Census SHOULD NOT Count Undocumented Immigrants

Counting undocumented immigrants in the census undermines the fundamental principle of American representative democracy that every voter has an equal voice. Through the census-based process of apportionment, states with large numbers of undocumented aliens will unconstitutionally gain members in the U.S. House of Representatives, thus robbing the citizen-voters in other states of their rightful representation.

In addition, an inflated population count resulting from the inclusion of undocumented immigrants would increase the number of votes some states get in the electoral college system, the process by which the president is elected.

In short, including undocumented immigrants in the census count will unjustly bestow additional political power in states where lax enforcement of immigration laws attract large populations of undocumented aliens.

In calculating congressional apportionment, the Census Bureau counts a state's total population, including both citizens and non-citizens of all ages. The apportionment population also includes U.S. Armed Forces personnel and federal civilian employees stationed outside the United States — along with their dependents living with them — that can be allocated, based on administrative records, back to a home state.

The Foreign-Born Population in the Census

To the Census Bureau, the U.S. foreign-born population includes anyone who was not a U.S. citizen at birth. This includes people who later became U.S. citizens through naturalization. Everyone else makes up the native-born population, composed of anyone who is a U.S. citizen at birth, including people born in the United States, Puerto Rico, a U.S. Island Area, or abroad to a U.S. citizen parent or parents.

Trump Moves to Exclude Undocumented Immigrants

In March 2018, President Donald Trump directed the Commerce Department to add a citizenship legality status question to the 2020 census. Census officials expressed a fear that such a question would make undocumented immigrants less likely to respond to the census thus not being counted for purposes of congressional apportionment. An undercount of undocumented immigrants could result in states with large non-citizen populations, like California, losing seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and suffering reduced federal funding. Trump’s census order was challenged in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union, immigrants’ rights organizations, several cities, and the State of California.

In January and July 2019, federal courts in Maryland and New York blocked the Trump administration from placing the citizenship question on the 2020 census. In May 2019, documents released by the courts showed that Thomas B. Hofeller, a deceased Republican campaign strategist had suggested that adding the citizenship question would help redraw—essentially gerrymander—congressional district maps in a way that “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” The document further revealed that Hofeller had written a key section of a brief from the Justice Department claiming that the addition of a citizenship question was essential to enforcing the Voting Rights of 1965.

On June 17, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Department of Commerce v. New York, voted 6-3 to block the Trump administration from including the citizenship question on the census form. In July President Trump withdrew his demand to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. 

However, in July 2020, President Trump issued a memorandum directing that undocumented immigrants though counted, be excluded from the census results report submitted to Congress for reapportionment purposes. “For the purpose of the reapportionment of representatives following the 2020 census,” the memorandum said, “it is the policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status.” On November 30, 2020, the Supreme Court heard 90 minutes of oral arguments on the constitutionality of Trump’s proposed action. A final decision is expected before the president submits the census report to Congress in early January as required. 

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Longley, Robert. "Should the U.S. Census Count Undocumented Immigrants?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). Should the U.S. Census Count Undocumented Immigrants? Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Should the U.S. Census Count Undocumented Immigrants?" ThoughtCo. (accessed April 16, 2021).