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What Happens if Undocumented Immigrants Aren't Included in the Census?

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 18: DACA recipients and their supporters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. On Thursday morning, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, denied the Trump administration's attempt to end DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
By Andrew Leonatti on October 20, 2020

One of the biggest reasons why the 2020 elections' stakes are so high is that this is a census year. The once-a-decade population count will affect redistricting in the U.S. House and state legislative districts for the next decade.

The Trump administration drew criticism last week for its announcement on October 13 that it would end the census two weeks early on October 15 after receiving permission to do so from the U.S. Supreme Court.

That news overshadowed the potentially more important announcement from the Supreme Court last week that it would hear arguments on the Trump administration's plan to exclude undocumented immigrants from population totals.

'Persons' vs. 'Citizens'

President Trump has said that undocumented immigrants should not count in the census data used to apportion U.S. House seats and votes in the Electoral College. In a statement accompanying Trump's signing of a presidential memorandum on the practice this summer, the White House said the move provides "a better understanding of the Constitution."

What Section Two of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution says, however, is:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.

The argument made by opponents of the administration is that the meaning of "persons" is quite different from "citizens." If Congress had intended to only count U.S. citizens, the 14th Amendment would say so.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with this argument, made by a coalition of states, cities, and immigrant rights groups in a lawsuit against the administration.

The other big problem that advocates see is that the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information on respondents' immigration status. That means the Trump administration would be using different data combined with census data to reach their conclusions on population totals.

What Is at Stake?

Redistricting discussions usually focus on the importance of getting your party into power in your state's governor's mansion and legislature. In most states, being in power means getting to draw district boundaries more favorable to your party's candidates.

But the census results also affect how many House seats your state will have. With the House's size currently capped at 435 members, states that show a large drop in population because undocumented immigrants are not counted could lose House seats. And losing House seats also means losing Electoral College votes.

A Pew Research Center study concluded that a victory by the Trump Administration would likely mean fewer seats for California, Texas, and Florida, but the results are far from certain.

A smaller population count would also affect federal funding for construction projects, public safety funds, health care funds, and many other sources of money that state governments rely on the federal government to provide.

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