WASHINGTON -- Immigration, an issue placed on the congressional backburner by attempts to revamp the nation's health care system, is percolating again as Republican lawmakers are pushing a measure that would require U.S. Census forms to include a question about the citizenship status of respondents.
An amendment by Sens. David Vitter, R-La, and Bob Bennett, R-Utah, to freeze Census Bureau funds if it doesn't add the citizenship question to more than 425 million forms before the once-a-decade count begins in April has divided Latino groups, as well as some opponents of comprehensive immigration legislation.
Vitter calls his amendment, which he hopes to attach to a Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, necessary to try to exclude illegal immigrants from the census count so their numbers won't impact on congressional apportionment or legislative redistricting, which is based on population.
"If the current census plan goes ahead, the inclusion of non-citizens towards apportionment will artificially increase the population count in certain states, and that will likely result in the loss of congressional seats for nine other states, including Louisiana," Vitter said last week.
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Several civil rights groups, however, say Vitter's amendment is a naked attempt to rouse anti-immigrant sentiments as next year's mid-term elections approach.
"Vitter is tapping into public resentment over illegal immigration,'' Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, said this week. "There are some members (of Congress) who are susceptible to that siren song.''
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials called the amendment a deliberate attempt to suppress Latino census numbers.
"By making intrusive inquiries into immigration status, the Vitter-Bennett amendment would raise concerns among all residents -- both native-born and immigrant -- about the confidentiality and privacy of information provided to the Census Bureau," NALEO's education fund said in a written statement. "This would deter participation in the census count, particularly among Latino residents, which we believe is the ultimate goal of the amendments proponents."
Civil rights and Latino groups and have been pressuring lawmakers this week to try to scuttle the amendment, which doesn't appear to have much support from Democrats. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security, called the measure "problematic."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus are expected to denounce the amendment at a news conference Thursday.
Eight former census directors from Republican and Democratic presidential administrations released a letter last week blasting Vitter's amendment, saying that adding a question at this point could delay the decennial enumeration and add to the $7 billion already spent on the survey.
"The effect on data quality is completely unknown, as are the consequences for participation among all immigrants, regardless of their legal status," the former Census directors wrote. "We could foresee, for example, problems during door-to-door visits unresponsive households, when a legalized 'head of household' would avoid enumerators because one or more other household members are present unlawfully."
Immigration groups in South Florida argued that such measures would discourage foreign-born residents from taking part in the Census.
"Such a provision has only one outcome in mind,'' said Randolph McGrorty, an immigration attorney with Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami. "To intimidate immigrants from participating in the census, thereby suppressing the numbers of the count and thwarting the constitutional and legal requirement that every 'person' be counted."
The question over adding an immigration-related question to the Census has blurred normally tight alliances.
The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders has separated itself from other comprehensive immigration proponents that oppose the Vitter amendment by speaking of it as a tool that could force Washington's hand on immigration.
"It is basically the best thing to happen to us since sliced bread," said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, the president of the group that's called on illegal immigrants to boycott the census as a way to push lawmakers to act. "The amendment is different from our intentions, but it applies pressure on Congress, particularly Democratic members of Congress, to pass a comprehensive immigration bill."
Rivera said illegal immigrants shouldn't be factored in when it comes to recalculating congressional district boundaries.
"Counting undocumented immigrants has created ghost electoral districts and has taken away from districts with larger (legal) voters . . . and that's definitely immoral," he said.
Steven Camarota, the research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based policy organization that advocates stricter immigration controls, agreed with Rivera but said Vitter's amendment is the wrong way to address the problem.
Camarota's group says that 10 million of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in this country responds to the census. The best thing to do, he says, is to enforce existing laws than to try to alter the census.
"Vitter has a point . . . but trying to re-do the census forms is like trying to turn an oil tanker around in a sea of mud," Camarota said. "If you had done this five to eight years ago, you might be able to do it. It's too late to do it now."
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