2010 Census: Making Immigrants Count

By Michelle Chen Jul 30, 2009

The immigration debate is replete with dubious warnings about the numbers of immigrants thronging to our borders, crowding our prisons, squeezing citizens out of job opportunities, and taxing our public services. But for all the demographic myths they propagate, nativists are unenthusiastic about actually counting immigrants, and the undocumented remain marginalized from the country’s most powerful demographic instrument. Due to language and social barriers, undocumented immigrants are prone to being severely undercounted, which is at the heart of the controversy surrounding the 2010 census. Although a fuller count would not resolve the unmet needs that burden the undocumented population (there’s even division in the Latino community over the value of the census), the Drum Major Institute argues that better numbers are crucial for accurately targeting government resources and services. Census data drives the distribution of Community Development Block Grants for urban development initiatives, and steers federal funding streams for transportation infrastructure. In public health programs serving communities of color, undercounting the undocumented may result in deep funding shortfalls. Similarly, public school systems are strained when federal education allocations fail to account for children of undocumented families. On the neighborhood level, demographic data informs local planning decisions for bus routes, sanitation programs and drawing school district lines. But anti-immigrant activists balk at efforts to make the census more accurate. The Center for Immigration Studies imagines a doomsday scenario of non-citizens shifting the distribution of congressional seats and inflating the influence of “high-immigration states.” The Federation for American Immigration Reform contends that the census "causes distortions when it is used to allocate federal public assistance funds among the states because nonimmigrants, including illegal aliens, are not entitled to public welfare." The underlying threat these groups perceive, however, has less to do with a "dilution" of political clout than with a pathological denial of a feared reality: that immigrants are here and not going anywhere. The DMI counters by calling for a census that elevates truth over nativist fiction:

Critics argue that since undocumented immigrants should not be present in the U.S. in the first place, they should be left out of the census as if they were, in fact, absent from our communities. But ignoring the existence of millions of people working, attending school, raising families and contributing to local economies does not make them disappear. Instead, it leaves the nation less equipped to understand and deal with the realities of American life.

Interestingly, the Center for Immigration Studies argues that some of the problems of miscounting could be partially resolved by encouraging immigrants to naturalize. But lest the group be seen as supporting immigrants’ rights, they add, “increased naturalizations would have no impact on the problem created by the presence of illegal aliens,” and call for tighter immigration restrictions. This popular artificial demarcation—the “illegal” versus the “citizen”—reveals that the goal is not to promote political enfranchisement, or even to alleviate the budgetary pressures nativists ascribe to migration. They instead seek to make a politically invisible population disappear, even at the expense of rational policymaking. Nativists hope political banishment will lead to physical elimination. But a more accurate census would do the entire public a service by providing a truer picture of America: a demographic landscape that is shifting along with the desires, struggles and needs of its people. Image: Census Bureau