Texas Tea Party Sues Over Census Districts

In Texas, Tea Party activists are suing to change the way census figures are used to draw congressional districts. They say by including illegal immigrants in the count, the government is diluting the political power of citizens who live in districts without large illegal immigrant populations.

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Three Tea Party activists have filed a lawsuit in federal court. It challenges the way census data is used to redraw congressional districts. After the latest census, Texas looks to pickup a number of congressional seats, especially around the state's southern border and near San Antonio.

But the plaintiffs in this suit want to make sure the numbers justifying those new seats do not include illegal immigrants. To do so, they argue, would discriminate against voters who live in districts with fewer illegal immigrants.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has this story from Dallas.

WADE GOODWYN: Since the founding of the country, the taking of the census has always been considered a signature job of the federal government. And since the founding, the mandate has been that every man, woman and child gets counted. Slaves were considered three-fifths of one person. Nevertheless, they too were included in the enumeration.

But a recently filed federal lawsuit in Texas wants to change this. It asserts, quote, "The inclusion of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Census might have the purpose and effect of strengthening the Hispanic vote. If so, this practice could violate the United States Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and the Texas Constitution."

Mr. WILLIAM GHEEN (President, Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee): We feel that illegal immigrants being counted for congressional apportionment is theft of political influence and power from innocent American citizens.

GOODWYN: William Gheen is the president of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee. None of the Texas plaintiffs, who are from northeast Texas, nor their Austin lawyer would agree to talk about their lawsuit.

So far, the lawsuit has flown mostly under the political radar in Texas, but it has being hailed as a national template by some anti-illegal immigration activists.

Mr. GHEEN: People in Maine and Vermont and South Carolina or Georgia, you should not have your political power, your political influence, reduced due to the mass lawlessness that's occurring because the federal government refuses to do the job they're supposed to.

GOODWYN: The lawsuit asks that a panel of three federal judges declare that the census data be adjusted, taking into consideration the number of illegal aliens in each congressional district. The assertion is: If a person is not eligible to vote, he or she should not be counted when redrawing congressional districts.

But constitutional law scholars say this proposed definition is too restrictive. Sam Issacharoff is one of the country's leading constitutional law experts and a professor at NYU.

Professor SAM ISSACHAROFF (Law, New York University): The census is done for the purpose of not only apportioning the Congress but for all sorts of things. You have to figure out how many schools you need in an area, you have to figure out how many hospitals you need, how much fire and police protection you need.

GOODWYN: Issacharoff says by far the biggest group of non-voters in Texas and across America is everyone under the age of 18. What about them? Would they count toward reapportionment as they have in the past?

Prof. ISSACHAROFF: If that is what this lawsuit is about, other than simply hostility to illegal aliens, the demand should be that persons under 18 years old not be counted or not be used in the apportionment.

GOODWYN: The census does not ask if people are citizens or not. So any adjustment to proposed congressional districts would have to be based on estimates. But whose estimates? Some Texas political observers believe this lawsuit is actually a gambit by conservatives in rural Texas to try to stem the diminution of their political power.

Texas is growing by leaps and bounds. However, nearly all of that growth is in the more liberal Texas cities, and much of it is Hispanic. But Hispanic leaders say that if you want to know what this is really all about you should turn your gaze from the courts to the capital in Austin.

State Representative MIKE VILLARREAL (San Antonio, Texas): This legislative session may be the most harmful session to Hispanics in history.

GOODWYN: Mike Villarreal is a state representative from San Antonio. Villarreal suspects that one purpose of this early census lawsuit is to try to establish a friendly conservative east Texas venue. He says the lawsuit is part of a multi-pronged assault from Tea Party politicians and the Texas GOP on Hispanics both illegal and legal, from new laws that will require that voters provide photo IDs to local law enforcement asking Texas Hispanics their citizenship status during routine stops.

State Rep. VILLARREAL: There's a bill that will require public schools to interrogate school children, asking them to prove up their citizenship and then reporting that information to the state and to the feds. I believe we've counted over a dozen anti-immigrant bills.

GOODWYN: This is something of a departure for the Texas Republican Party. As governor George Bush enjoyed 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, and Texas politicians avoided legislation that might alienate Hispanics forever. Those days appear to be over. The lawsuit will be heard later this year.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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