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Census Controversy Over Counting Immigrants Awaiting Deportation « The Washington Independent

The debate over counting illegal immigrants on the census has been discussed over and over again.

But what about immigrant detainees awaiting deportation? The Texas Observer yesterday highlighted an interesting loophole in which immigrant detainees in detention centers are counted in the census. Then, those immigrants are deported, leaving their local or state jurisdiction with more money and political power.

More than funding is at stake: The composition of legislative districts, county board districts, and city council districts could be skewed by soon-to-be-deported prisoners. Census data are used on the state and national levels to determine the sizes and shapes of these districts. The inclusion of detainees in the count means fewer eligible voters per elected official in places like Cameron County. It also violates the principle of “proportional representation.”

For decades, the government has included prisoners in the census, regardless of their immigration status. In the past, the impact of immigrant detainees has been slight. This is the first decennial census since the re-organization of immigrantion [sic] agencies and the subsequent boom in immigration detention. Immigration prisons have expanded from 7,500 beds in 1995 to more than 30,000 in 2010. About one-third of the nation’s immigrant detainees are held in Texas…

Until this census, the count had never identified exactly where “group quarters” like prisons are and how many people occupy them. For the first time, this census will let states decide whether to count detainees in local populations. By excluding prisoners, states would get a more accurate population count and would ensure that funds are not distributed according to locations of large detention centers. The amount of federal funding directed to the state would not change.

There’s been debate about where to count prisoners for the census — should they be counted in their home state or as residents of their prisons? Most states don’t allow prisoners to claim residency in the state where they are held. But since 1790, the Census Bureau has counted people using the “usual residency” rule, meaning their residency is where they spend most of their time.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that documents the impact of prisoners on communities, recently released a report detailing why counting prisoners where they’re held can be damaging to the community as well as unconstitutional.

Unlike U.S. citizens in prisons (who will most likely still reside in the country when they’re released) these immigrant detainees don’t have that option.

As the Texas Observer noted, Texas is home to the largest number of immigrant detainees of any state. There are more than 200 detention facilities in the country, most of which are privately operated. Texas has six ICE-operated detention centers — more than any other state. Arizona and California come in second with three each.

Counting immigrant detainees — and illegal immigrants altogether, for that matter — in these states may strongly impact redistricting and the allotment of congressional seats. While many agree there are flaws in the way the census counts people — especially prisoners and illegal immigrants — some politicians who stand to benefit from these counts are defending the current policy. The Observer writes:

In Washington, there appears to be confusion about the inclusion of immigrant detainees in the census. Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, represents a district that includes the 1,900-bed South Texas Detention Center and the 450-bed Laredo Contract Detention Facility. He defended the inclusion of immigrant detainees: “Vitally important funding that supports these facilities relies, in part, on census data.”

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