By David B. Rivkin Jr. and John S. Baker Jr.
Aug. 2, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal
President Trump met wide derision last month when he issued an executive order excluding illegal aliens from the census numbers used for apportioning House seats. “Persons means persons,” Thomas Wolf of the Brennan Center for Justice told a reporter. “Everyone must be counted.” But counting is different from allocating political power, and Mr. Trump has the better constitutional argument.
Section 2 of the 14th Amendment provides: “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.” This revises a provision in Article I that uses similar language but also includes the infamous Three Fifths Clause.
When voting on the latter provision, the Constitutional Convention used the term “number of inhabitants.” The Committee on Style shortened that to “numbers,” but that linguistic change was of no import. As Chief Justice Earl Warren noted in Powell v. McCormack (1969), the committee wasn’t authorized to make substantive changes to previously voted provisions. In Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), Justice Hugo Black wrote for the court that “the debates at the Convention make at least one fact abundantly clear: that . . . in allocating Congressmen, the number assigned to each State should be determined solely by the number of the State’s inhabitants.”
The administration argues that illegal aliens don’t qualify as inhabitants, and it’s right. The definition of “inhabitant” at the time of the Founding had an important political and economic context because of the legal responsibility of localities to care for the destitute under the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor. An inhabitant was a person who rightfully resided in a jurisdiction, contributing to and qualifying for available benefits. Like illegal aliens today, those whose presence was unlawful were not considered inhabitants and were subject to removal.
According to the 2018 Yale study, there are at least 16.7 million, and more likely around 22.1 million, illegal aliens in the U.S. The apportionment following the 2010 census yielded congressional districts containing roughly 710,000 people each. That means the illegal-alien population is the equivalent of around 30 districts, more than any state except California (53) or Texas (36).
States inflating census numbers has been a ever-present danger to the proper functioning of America’s federalist system. In Federalist No. 54, James Madison addressed what he called states’ “interest in exaggerating their inhabitants” to bolster their representation in Congress: “It is of great importance that the States should feel as little bias as possible, to swell or to reduce the amount of their numbers.”
Millions of illegal aliens are distributed disproportionately throughout the U.S., more than enough to cause shifts in apportionment of congressional seats, which also affect the Electoral College. In an example of the kind of swelling Madison warned about, some states and localities entice illegal aliens with “sanctuary” laws promising to shield them from federal law enforcement and provide them free health care and other benefits. In the years ahead, that could make the illegal alien population become larger and more concentrated in these states.
Yet this is not simply a blue vs. red state conflict over political power. Sanctuary state California will lose representatives if illegal aliens are excluded from apportionment, but so will Texas and Florida. It is also a Sun Belt vs. Rust Belt conflict. States like Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio are the ones that stand to gain (or at least not lose) in apportionment under the president’s plan.
Since only a few states lose representation after each decennial census, this gradual erosion of political power has rarely been challenged. The Supreme Court has never addressed the constitutionality of including illegal aliens in congressional apportionment and has only occasionally been asked to do so (including in a 2011 case in which we represented Louisiana). When the court rejected Mr. Trump’s proposed citizenship question on the census, it was on technical administrative procedure ground, not the merits.
That leaves it to the political branches to carry out the constitutional mandate of counting only inhabitants for reapportionment. Congress has done so, by enacting statutes giving the president wide discretion on reapportionment decisions. Mr. Trump is right to take the next step.
Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Baker is a visiting professor at Georgetown’s Center for the Constitution and a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University Law Center.