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Nasty Debate Forms over Citizenship Question on the 2010 Census Monday


Immigration is stirring up trouble again in Congress. Just when we thought we were safe to put the issue on the back-burner for another few months, Republican Senators David Vitter (LA) and Bob Bennett (UT) have found a way to sneak it back into some upcoming legislation. And this time, the new alliances are being formed and the new lines are being drawn are almost spooky.

Sens. Vitter and Bennett are trying to attach an amendment to an upcoming Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill that would freeze Census Bureau funds if the organization does not add a question about the citizenship status of respondents to the more than 425 million forms before the once-a-decade count begins this coming April.

The Senators claim that the bill is necessary in order to exclude illegal immigrants from the census count so their numbers won’t affect congressional appointment or legislative redistricting, both of which are based on population. Vitter says that the inclusion of these non-citizens will increase the population count in some states, which would result in a loss of congressional seats for other states, including Louisiana.

Clearly, the proposed legislation has raised many questions, but not only from civil-rights and Latino groups. Even some Republicans signed a letter that was released last week criticizing Vitter’s amendment; and the consistently anti-immigrant group Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington-based research group, also came out against the proposed amendment. The group’s research director Steven Camarota said that Vitter’s amendment was not the right way to go about addressing the problem of illegal immigration, and that it was too late in the game to make significant changes to the 2010 Census.

Surprisingly enough, while many Latino groups have come out against the legislation, one group is talking about the possible merits of the legislation. The Rev. Miguel Rivera of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders said, “It’s basically the best thing to happen to us since sliced bread.” He goes on to explain that illegal immigrants should not be factored in when it comes to calculating electoral districts, but also thinks that this legislation could be a great way to convince Latinos to boycott the Census and apply pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package sooner rather than later.

There’s no question that the proposed legislation has created some rather unconventional alliances. But here are a few more reasons why I think it’s just a really bad idea:

• The bill feeds off public animosity over the immigration debate to create an even more rigorous set of laws for immigrants, in turn creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates a dialogue of hatred while legislatively accomplishing nothing;

• Inquiring about immigration status may raise questions of the confidentiality of the information provided to the Census Bureau among citizens, and non-citizens, residents, and non-residents, alike;

• A citizenship question would likely impede Latino participation in the count, a group which is the largest minority in the United States today. Their lack of participation could seriously skew the results; and

• My favorite: former census directors have stated that adding another question this late in the game could not only delay the Census, but could add significant additional costs to the $7 BILLION ALREADY SPENT on the survey. Not with my tax dollars!

With any luck, the provision will not pass and the issue, for the moment at least, will be safe. However, it’s only a matter of time until the next member of Congress comes along with a new trick up their sleeve to sneak the immigration issue back onto the floor. What Congress needs to realize is that the real treat for everyone would be to have a respectful, honest discussion about how to seriously solve one of the nation’s scariest problems.