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Mel Copen: Making sense of the census
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Forsyth County News
A recent headline read: “Citizenship question will not be added to 2010 census."

The reason given in this particular story is that asking the question “could have led to significant undercounts in states with large immigrant populations.” The article went on to explain that this might result in the loss of federal money and “congressional clout,” since congressional seats are apportioned based on population.

The year 1837 saw the publication of Hans Christian Anderson’s short story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It was about tailors who convince the emperor that they are selling him a wondrous suit which is invisible to the incompetent. Unwilling to admit his “incompetence,” the emperor buys the “garments” and wears them in a parade. The spectators, knowing the story related to the suit, are ashamed or afraid to say what their eyes see. But one innocent child returns them all to reality when he says, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.” More than a century and a half later, the lesson still hasn’t sunk in.

Those of you who, like me, are in a constant wrestling match with the readout on the bathroom scale may relate to the following pattern. After being “good” for a couple of days, something comes up and you blow the diet. You know the morning news will be bad. So what do you do to “correct” the situation? It’s easy: You skip the weigh-in. That will teach that danged scale.

But if you are like me, in the sober light of day, you realize that not weighing in really didn’t make a difference. The excesses of last night didn’t go away. They’re still with you.

These two stories are quaint and sound trivial, except that seems to be the way government often works. Rather than deal with issues, we ignore them or pretend they are not what they really are. The military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy is a good example. But there are many many more, and the census question is another illustration. Let’s look at the two issues that were raised in the newspaper story.

One concern is that if the question were asked, states with high non-citizen populations would lose federal revenue. This is not a trivial issue. In the case of Arizona, for example, it was estimated that in 2007, illegal immigrants represented 9 percent of the population.

There are solutions to the dilemma. If it is in nation’s best interest to provide funds based on the number of people, regardless of status, then change the rules for programs in which funding is based upon resident counts. If it is not in the nation’s best interests, then enforce the existing regulations. But making this type of decision requires that members of Congress stick their necks out -- in defiance of the best of congressional traditions. So if these issues are not to be resolved, there is an easy way out: exempt the census counts from consideration. At least that way we will still have some idea of the magnitude of the issues relating to illegal immigration.

The second concern relates to the apportionment of congressional seats. Once again, the same set of alternatives seems to apply. If it is in the best interest of the nation to assure that illegals are entitled to congressional representation, then count them. If it is not, then don’t. A modification to the language of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution may be required. But once again, if we can’t resolve the issues between now and the time of the census, then exempt the census results from consideration. Congress has the power, but even there, action is stymied by political risk. And since specific household information is not shared with other government agencies, reassurance to the respondents that there are no adverse consequences to truthful replies (like deportation by the INS) must also be provided. We just put the census in a separate status, given its importance to the nation.

There is however another alternative. We can just keep on yelling about the problems associated with illegal immigration, devoid of hard facts. That certainly makes it easier to take stands. It’s hard (or perhaps it’s easy) to refute a position based on non-facts if all you are armed with is another set of non-facts. But that seems to be characteristic (and perhaps comfortable) for many of the modes in which government currently functions. It also allows the media great latitude to “factulate” (a word that I coined to cover the process of converting speculations into facts). Much of today’s entertainment would go down the drain if we changed, and all that we would have left is professional wrestling.

The issues relating to illegal immigration are complex, and it is not my intent to delve into them here. But at the minimum, we need to ascertain the facts and then to base our actions upon those facts. We need to find ways to enter into constructive dialog.

These issues have to be resolved, one way or another. Ignoring them, I guess, is a way to achieve resolution, at least temporarily, but it’s a very unsatisfying way. We need to address issues in the light of what is best for the nation. Unfortunately, the solution is often clouded by the desire of politicians to avoid personal risk. Perhaps term limits would take care of that problem.

We need information. Too much of our energies today are devoted to the questions surrounding illegal immigration, and even though the nation’s economic woes have diminished the numbers somewhat, the issue still remains and is likely to be back with us in full force in the future. We cannot ignore realities. As distasteful as it may be, we have to get on the bathroom scale, see where we are and then take appropriate action to deal with the issue. It doesn’t matter that there is a diversity of opinions on what should be done. Ignoring things does not make them go away, and as the Emperor learned, failure to face reality, for whatever reason, can be embarrassing. This nation has too many good people who are either silent on the issues or vocal on their emotions. Facts, a desire to listen and engage in constructive dialog, and willingness to compromise are what is needed.  

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at