Should the U.S. Census Count Undocumented Immigrants?

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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, but proponents and opponents of the practice argue over whether that should be the case.

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, noncitizen long-term visitors, and immigrants, including undocumented ones.

Why the Census Should Count Undocumented Immigrants

Not counting undocumented immigrants 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 a state or city reports, the more federal money it might get.

Cities provide the same level of services—such as police, fire, and emergency medical treatment—to undocumented immigrants as they do to U.S. citizens. In some states like California, undocumented people may also attend public schools. In 2004, the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated the cost to California cities for education, health care, and incarceration of undocumented people to be $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. Also, according to the Census Bureau, every person in the country should be counted in the census. As the bureau states on its website:

"The Founders of our fledgling nation had a bold and ambitious plan to empower the people over their new government. The plan was to count every person living in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress."

Why the Census Should Not Count Undocumented Immigrants

Those who are of the opinion that undocumented immigrants should not be included in the census believe that counting undocumented immigrants undermines the fundamental principle of American representative democracy that grants every voter an equal voice. Opponents also feel that the census-based process of apportionment will allow states with large numbers of undocumented immigrants to unconstitutionally gain members in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In addition, those who oppose the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in the count say 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 would unjustly bestow additional political power to states where lax enforcement of immigration laws attracts large populations of undocumented immigrants, opponents claim.

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—that can be allocated, based on administrative records, back to a home state.

The Foreign-Born Population in the Census

According 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 became U.S. citizens through naturalization. Everyone else makes up the native-born population, composed of anyone who was 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's Move 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 the 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 noncitizen 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 also issued a memorandum directing undocumented immigrants to be counted but excluded from the census results report submitted to Congress. “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.

In December 2020, on its last day of rulings for the 2020 term, the court took no action on the case. In January 2021, President Joe Biden, who took office that month, said that undocumented immigrants would be included in the census count.

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Longley, Robert. "Should the U.S. Census Count Undocumented Immigrants?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 1, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, June 1). Should the U.S. Census Count Undocumented Immigrants? Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Should the U.S. Census Count Undocumented Immigrants?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).