Sunday, October 18, 2009

Vitter, Gill, the Census, and Non-Citizen Residents

I haven't commented yet on David Vitter's quest to add a citizenship question to the Census because the typical Vitter pander to the worst anti-immigrant fears among the conservative xenophobes seemed pretty obvious to me; but James Gill's column today in the Times-Picayune, which found merit in Vitter's proposal, thus glossing over the xenophobic nature of Vitter's position, demands a response. I'll get to Gill in a minute, but as proof of Vitter's pandering to the conservative base, let me just note that in his letter to Sen. Mary Landrieu requesting her support of his census initiative, as reported in the Times-Picayune, Vitter wrote:

"Voting for cloture or against my amendment could very well be a vote to strip our state of proper representation in Congress and cede our state's influence to other states that reward illegal immigrants like California and New York."
California and New York. Two reliably liberal states. Certainly, California does have a fairly large share of undocumented non-citizens. But New York? What about Texas? Arizona? I guess Vitter would argue that Texas or Arizona don't "reward" undocumented migrants, but it stands to reason that if Texas or Arizona didn't "reward" undocumented migrants in some way, these migrants wouldn't hang around in that state. And as for California, Vitter conveniently ignores the fact that in spite of this state's "liberal" electorate, California is also the state whose voters passed the infamous Proposition 187 in 1994. Can't recall that any similar measure managed to pass muster in the State of Texas. Well, I think Vitter doesn't mention Texas in his demagoguery of this issue because Texas is a reliably "red" state, and Vitter wouldn't want to offend that state's two Republican Senators. But I digress ... The point is that Vitter's intention in supporting this measure is clearly partisan and clearly not principled, and is more a pander to anti-immigrant xenophobia in Louisiana than a sincere interest in preserving the numbers of Louisiana's Congressional delegation or in preserving Louisiana's access to the federal government's largesse. And I'll attempt to show this more fully when I go through Gill's column.

Now, on to Gill. In his editorial, Gill, who is a rather reliable critic of Vitter, surprised me with a rather uninformed and unnuanced view of the big picture that must be considered when looking at Vitter's proposal. He does throw a barb at Vitter, but only to criticize him for over-demagoguing the issue and thus turning what Gill thinks was a sensible idea into a bit of ugly legislation. Gill writes:
That it [adding a citizenship question to the census questionnaire] won't happen may be partly Vitter's fault. His original proposal was that the Census should ask not only about citizenship but about the legal status of immigrants.

That was obviously unnecessary since the plan was that all aliens, documented or not, would not count in population statistics used for reapportionment purposes. The Vitter amendment, in its original form, would have served only to scare the illegals off and skew the Census numbers.

After Stonecipher pointed this out, Vitter removed the offending words so that the additional question would be limited to the issue of citizenship. But the battle appeared lost by then.
Gill is right about Vitter's attempts to "scare the illegals off." And that makes Vitter's xenophobic pandering clear. At least to me it does. But what Gill fails to mention is that scaring these folks off from participating in the census isn't going to scare them out of the country. No, it will instead just make such folks scared of any person claiming to represent state authority, including local law enforcement, which any local law enforcement officer would tell you is never in the best interest of a community's security. And that, in itself, is a practical reason not to demagogue the census in this way, thus wrapping this important task up in all the nastiness towards undocumented immigrants that comes with the highly-charged immigration debate.

But there are other reasons to find fault with even the "sanitized" version of Vitter's proposal, which Gill seems to think is good and reasonable. And these reasons have precisely to do with what both Vitter and Gill think make this proposal a worthy endeavor: apportioning Congressional representation and federal dollars. The essence of this argument is twofold: (1) that, without excluding non-citizens from the census count, Louisiana stands to lose a seat in the Federal Congress, reducing its representation in Washington from 7 seats in the House to 6 seats; and (2) that states with low numbers of non-citizen populations would lose some portion of the pie (i.e. federal dollar disbursements to the states) based on general population statistics as determined by the census. And it may just very well be true that both of these outcomes will occur. First off, I'm not sure this would be the outcome, though it could be. But, even if it does turn out this way, I don't hold that this is necessarily a bad thing. Nor do I think that it would be an undemocratic outcome, which is what Vitter and Gill would have you think. Democracy is not just about serving citizens, but about representing communities. And state/municipal governments with higher non-citizen populations still have the demands of managing the well-being of their communities. Cheating these states and municipalities of the resources needed to serve their residents, citizen and non-citizen alike, will hurt not only the non-citizen residents, but also the citizen residents. Providing fewer federal dollars to support infrastructure, law enforcement, public health and social welfare programs, etc., of states and municipalities is not only a recipe for augmenting problems in such places, but it punishes the citizens of such places for a problem not of their own making. Try convincing a mayor or a citizen of a Southwestern Texas or Southern California city (or a Northeastern Texas or Northern California city with very few non-citizen residents, for that matter) that reducing per capita spending on services that keep their communities safe, healthy, and happy is a good and fair thing. I don't think many citizens in such places will think it is all that good or fair.

As for the whole questions of restructuring congressional delegations, the bigger picture suggests that the net outcome of the Vitter proposal in terms of the Republican/Democratic balance of power in Washington would be a relative wash. So, under the Vitter proposal, states with relatively low non-citizen populations wouldn't lose seats in Congress while states with relatively higher non-citizen populations would. This means, supposedly, that places like Texas and California would lose seats and places like Louisiana and Utah would retain their seats, while places where citizen populations increase for other reasons would see the number of seats in their Congressional delegations increase. But if Texas and California are likely to lose seats, so too are places like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina and a host of other Southern and Great Plains states that have witnessed significant non-citizen population increases over the past decades. As many "red" state seats could be lost as gained; and the same for "blue" state seats. But, I think this argument in itself is a non-starter, because it rests on the assumption that it is only the non-citizen population that is changing the demographic makeup of certain states. I question this assumption. In places where non-citizen populations have grown since the last census, citizen populations have also likely grown alongside them as well. I'm not convinced that removing the non-citizen population from the census would alter the general population counts all that much so as to make a significant difference one way or the other. On this point, Gill, referencing demographer Elliott Stonecipher, writes:
Thus, with non-citizens in the count, Louisiana has 1.453 percent of the national population. But take them out and our share goes up to 1.538 percent, which Elliott Stonecipher, Louisiana demographer par excellence, figures would be more than enough to ensure that none of our estimable members of Congress would need to be sacrificed.
But I wonder what assumptions about citizen demographic shifts factor into this calculation? I wonder how Stonecipher is calculating Louisianians displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita into his model? It's unclear to me how they arrive at this conclusion.

And then there's also the question of lying about citizenship status. I'd like to know what evidence Vitter has that including such a politically-charged question on a census questionnaire would produce the kind of outcome he hopes it will. I know that if I were a non-citizen resident in the U.S., especially if I were undocumented, I'd probably choose not to participate in the Census to begin with, or, if I did participate, not to answer this particular question. Or, if I thought that not answering the question would raise suspicion and draw the curious gaze of the state in my direction, I'd flat out lie about it. What I would never do, though, under any circumstance, would be to volunteer to a U.S. government authority via a census form information that I am not a citizen of the country. So, I honestly don't think Vitter's proposal would yield the kind of results he thinks it would.

In the end, in my mind, the reasons not to ask citizenship status on a census outweigh the parochial benefits, as elusive as they may be, that might be gained by including such a question. For politicians like Vitter (and even for pundits like Gill), one would think that the risk of angering all those citizens who may be punished by including such a question with the intent to discriminate on the basis of answers to it, or who would be put out by the manifest mean-spiritedness of it, wouldn't be worth the trouble for potential gains that may not materialize anyway. Let me offer this off-hand comment by Gill as an example:
Well over two-thirds of them [non-citizen residents] are in California and Texas, which thus gain Washington clout, and federal dollars, at the expense of Louisiana and other states that have relatively few residents unfamiliar with the Pledge of Allegiance.
With gratuitous cheap shots like that, the ugliness of the intent behind the proposal becomes pretty clear. And it's hard for those of us who know the non-citizen residents of our communities personally, people who often know more about this country than many citizens do and who are generally more grateful for the opportunities that being in this country provide to them than many citizens are, to muster up any sympathy for a proposal wrapped in such petty meanness.


andrew said...

I've noticed that a lot of my fellow Hispanics in San Antonio feel the same way about this debate. That it is nothing but thinly veiled racism at its finest.

If they're going to hate us they should at the least do it for more legitimate reasons. Such as we're sleeping with your daughter or wife, or that we ran you out of business by being better than you at it.

Did these assholes forget who was there when Katrina struck?

Where did the contractors that helped put the police and fire departments back together come from? Texas

Who were helping repair Dillard University? Texans.

Who had the real-estate, apartment complexes, and open arms needed to grant people who lost everything a place to live? Texans.

A good friend of mine was a contractor for BMS:CAT when Katrina struck, he dropped everything and was on a plane the morning after the levy broke.

My father's friend (a second generation Mexican immigrant) had his apartment complex registered for section 8 to take in evacuee's.

My family and friends (mostly Hispanic again) got all our old clothes together and donated these to the families that needed them.

We're ready to help those who are truly victims of circumstance. We're the ones here with open arms.
We also see every slight against one of ours as a slight against us, and to paraphrase Eli Roth: "We don't forgive, we collect interest. We're getting angrier by the year."

San Antonio is predominately Hispanic, in fact at this points whites are the actual minority. We mostly vote blue, give us enough time and Texas will be a blue state. The police here are now mostly Latino, and they enjoy collecting interest on white people when they detect that little tinge of racism in their eyes.

andrew said...

These things scare those who are screaming about immigration.