Census Bureau headquarters in Suitland, MD
Census Bureau headquarters in Suitland, MD. Official photo

The United States admits nearly 1 million immigrants every year. That’s on the high side when compared to other countries in the world.

Only 15% or our immigrants come from Europe and Canada. Most are from Asia, Latin America and Mexico. We are open to many countries in the world; we are not Eurocentric. The United States is a magnet for immigrants — to escape persecution, seek better health care, family reunification, the land of opportunity, the sense of freedom, and many other reasons.

And then there is the highly contentious issue of illegal or undocumented immigrants. Estimates range from a low of 11 million to an upper range of 20 million or more. For many in the United States, the presence of a large number of unlawfully present individuals undercuts the integrity of the country and presents a fiscal drain.

For others in the United States, the presence of illegal aliens represents a direct way to give humanitarian aid. They believe the United States can afford to help these individuals despite other problems such as homelessness among citizens and higher unemployment in inner cities.

The compromise reached with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided amnesty for several million undocumented aliens and aimed to control future illegal immigration with employer sanctions and other provisions. Clearly, the legislative objective failed and we are now at a greater impasse.

Legislative compromise often seems tantalizingly close, but the bitter divide in public attitudes and among elected representatives prevents a reasonable path forward. A border wall, enforcement and employer sanctions for some; sanctuary cities and an open border for others.

The issue once again surfaced with the current administration seeking to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census. The Supreme Court noted that such a question would be legal, but faulted the administration on its rationale for including it. That is somewhat surprising since the question has been in most censuses through 1950 as well as in the Current Populations Surveys under the previous administration.

Rather than fight for including this question on the 2020 census, President Trump decided to take another path to counting the number and whereabouts of citizens and those not lawfully present in the United States: an executive order that would require federal agencies to submit data on citizenship to the Department of Commerce.

Two important questions come to mind. What are the pros and cons of knowing how many unlawfully present individuals reside in the United States, and where? And can the aggregation of these data sets be useful for immigration enforcement?

Part of my own research at San Diego State University in the 1980s considered the advantages and disadvantages of knowing how many undocumented persons there were in the United States, particularly in the area of money targeted for health services. If one counted undocumented persons, the argument went, then budgets for health services could be larger.

But if the undocumented were excluded by law from receiving those services, the extra money wasn’t necessary. Clearly there is a benefit to the wider community in treating undocumented persons for communicable diseases and for emergency situations, but citizens expect to have priority. So knowing how many undocumented persons there were, budgets could be more finely tuned to those services for which undocumented persons are eligible under U.S. law.

In the arena of public education, undocumented minors are entitled to attend public schools in the United States. This was resolved by the Supreme Court under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. However, a college education is less certain, and depends more on a particular state’s willingness to pay for an immigrant’s education just like a native state resident.

Outside of social and housing services, occupational licensing, human trafficking and similar arenas, the question of the number of undocumented persons in a particular ZIP code might also affect the apportionment of Congressional districts.

So it would be extremely odd not to want to know how many undocumented persons there are in the United States and where they are located. Knowing the answer is, of course, a difficult proposition, but using federal administrative data might be a better approach than self-reported census data. You would only object to this type of counting if you were opposed to enforcement of immigration laws.

So, can federal databases be used to enforce immigration law, such as ICE deportation actions?

It is unclear which databases might be used by ICE for deportation and whether this direction is what is intended by President Trump’s interest in data collection for statistical purposes. However, there is a palpable fear among immigrant rights advocates. The technical connections in the Secure Communities program, such as between the FBI and DHS, can trigger identity and location information. DMV databases are a concern, as are mobile biometric data, gang databases, and the National Crime Information Center data base.

Perhaps the most telling number is the one presently kept by the Border Patrol — the number of those seeking entry to the United States. The “credible fear” claim of many makes it difficult to assign individuals to a legitimate asylum status, especially since the large majority of those fail to show up for their hearings before an immigration judge, and then fall into the unlawfully present category.

Numbers do not tell the story of human suffering or the desire to enter the positively viewed United States; nor do these numbers tell the success of those who persist and may gain eventual lawful status even while living in the shadows. The narratives are multiple.

Balancing the numbers is a different enterprise than the calculation of success and misery.

There is the further ethical question of whether and how to use these databases as part of reaching a legislative compromise such as that reached in 1986.  This ethical question sits on the edge of what it means to have a country.

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.