US lawmakers mull adding citizenship question to census amid simmering immigration debate

People leave Tijuana, Mexico, for the United States on March 13. U.S. House lawmakers are considering adding a question about citizenship to the decennial Census Bureau headcount, similar to change sought by former President Trump.

People leave Tijuana, Mexico, for the United States on March 13. U.S. House lawmakers are considering adding a question about citizenship to the decennial Census Bureau headcount, similar to change sought by former President Trump. (Gregory Bull, Associated Press)

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WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers, prodded by Republicans, are once again debating whether to put a question about citizenship status on the decennial U.S. Census Bureau headcount.

A vote in the U.S. House could come as early as Wednesday.

The proposal up for discussion, the Equal Representation Act, also calls for apportioning U.S. House seats and U.S. presidential electors based only on a state's population of U.S. citizens. Immigrants, regardless of their migratory status, now figure in apportionment but wouldn't under the change.

Whether it passes — former President Donald Trump unsuccessfully pushed for such change while in office — remains a big question mark. Even if the measure passes in the GOP-controlled U.S. House, Democrats, who are likely to oppose the measure, control the U.S. Senate.

At any rate, the discussion is yet another indicator of how hot the immigration topic is in Utah and beyond and the opposing views the issue and immigrants themselves generate, particularly undocumented immigrants.

In opening discussion Monday at a House Rules Committee meeting on the measure, HR7109, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, charged that 9.2 million undocumented immigrants have crossed into the United States so far during the tenure of President Joe Biden, a Democrat. HR7109 is co-sponsored by Reps. John Curtis and Burgess Owens, Utah Republicans, among many others.

"They're not able to vote, but as it stands now, their very presence can have an outsized effect and unfairly skew federal representation away from American citizens," said Burgess, the committee chair. He went on: "The people's House must act to ensure the principle of 'one person, one vote' remains."

The measure faced backlash from Democrats, who, among other things, cited the provision of the 14th Amendment that states that apportioning of U.S. House seats should be based on "the whole number of persons" in each state, without regard to migratory status. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts and a Rules Committee member, called the GOP proposal a bid "to rig the census and ignore the constitutional requirement that we count everyone, not just some people."

A minority report by Democrats on the measure further noted the potential upshot to distribution of some $2.8 trillion a year in federal funds based on Census Bureau population figures. "An inaccurate census would skew the fair distribution of federal resources for the next decade and deprive cities and towns of needed resources for everything from roads to hospitals and veterans' care," it reads.

Following Monday's Rules Committee meeting, the U.S. House on Tuesday approved the rules to govern formal discussion on HR7109. Official debate in the House and a vote on the bill could come as early as Wednesday.

'Wildly varying numbers'

Regardless of the fate of HR7109, the discussion of the measure underscores the sharp debate about the exact number of undocumented immigrants in the United States and their value to the country. Apprehensions and encounters involving U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border have surged in recent months, fueling the debate.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, said at Monday's hearing that "media types" put the number of undocumented immigrants in the country as of the early 2020s at around 11 million. "The numbers that I hear now are consistently between 20 and 40 million illegally in the country," he went on, without citing a specific source.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said he's seen "wildly varying numbers" while Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, said the numbers he's "seen kicked around" range from 10 million to 12 million.

Figures from organizations that focus on immigration don't offer much more clarity, with current estimates of undocumented immigrants hard to come by.

The Center for Migration Studies, in a report released in January, put the number of undocumented immigrants as of 2022 at just under 11 million, extrapolating from U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey estimates.

"The report finds that the undocumented population grew from 10.3  million in 2021 to 10.9  million in 2022, an increase of 650,000. The increase reverses more than a decade of gradual decline," said the report.

The Pew Research Center said in an article last November that the figure totaled 10.5 million as of 2021, down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007.

Though Burgess charged, without citing a specific source, that 9.2 million undocumented immigrants have crossed into the United States during Biden's tenure, the Center for Immigration Studies offers a lower figure. The organization estimates that the foreign-born population in the United States has increased by 6.4 million under Biden, with about 3.7 million of the total representing undocumented immigrants.

As for Utah, the Center for Migration Studies estimates that 100,000 undocumented immigrants lived in the state in 2022.

The Migration Policy Institute put the figure for Utah at 89,000 as of 2019, with around 53,000 of them from Mexico.

The Pew Research Center put the figure as of 2021 at 95,000 in Utah, down from 110,000 as of 2010 but up from 50,000 as of 1998.

An estimated 46.2 million foreign-born people lived in the United States as of 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released last month; about 53% of them were naturalized U.S. citizens.

More on HR7109

Under HR7109, the proposed census question under consideration would ask whether residents in each household are citizens.

"Answering whether an individual respondent or household member is or is not a citizen reveals only that data point. It does not reveal if an individual respondent or household member is present in the United States unlawfully," reads a Republican report on the proposal.

Even so, Democrats and other critics have said the question, even if it doesn't probe legal status, could deter some would-be respondents from filling out the census form, to be collected next in 2030.

HR7109 proponents argue that counting immigrants in apportioning U.S. House seats creates an imbalance in representation between states that have and don't have large numbers of such residents. "Thus, states with higher proportions of noncitizens residing in that state are advantaged over states with a lower concentration of noncitizens," reads the Republican report on the bill.

Democratic critics argue that every apportionment since 1790 has included all residents, not just those who have a right to vote. Moreover, the Democratic response to the bill, prepared by Raskin, noted that the immigrant population has a higher labor force participation rate than the U.S.-born population.

"These people are paying taxes and contributing to the economic well-being of the nation. It is unacceptable that these individuals should not be represented," reads Raskin's response.

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.


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