U.S. Sen. David Vitter, acquiescing to concerns from Shreveport pollster and demographer Elliott Stonecipher, modified language in an amendment he co-sponsored with fellow Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah that would require the Census Bureau to inquire about one’s legal status in the United States on census forms that will be distributed next spring. Instead, the amended amendment seeks to require a question about one’s citizenship — not their legal status — on the census short form. Stonecipher and others worried that a census question of legal residence in the United States would scare off undocumented immigrants.

“Asking census respondents whether or not they are legally in the country will suppress responses, I believe, in an obvious way: rather than risk detection as an illegal immigrant, the person will not respond to the census at all, i.e., the person will remain uncounted. That, in turn, works in opposition to what I believe defines a fair count,” Stonecipher wrote in an open letter Wednesday. Within hours Vitter and Bennett changed the language in the amendment, which may not come up for vote anyway. The Census Bureau says any changes to the census forms would be disastrous; about 425 million have already been printed and are ready for distribution, and the process of readying the forms continues daily.

Stonecipher has made a cause of excluding non-citizens from the enumeration derived from the 2010 census, arguing that states like California and Texas, which have high non-citizen populations, will show artificially inflated populations and will unfairly gain seats in Congress. Conversely, states like Louisiana with relatively low non-citizen populations will lose seats in Congress; Stonecipher predicts that Louisiana will lose one House seat if the Census Bureau counts everyone in the country but does not exclude non-citizens — illegal and otherwise — from the final count. On that point, Vitter and Stonecipher are in agreement. But the Obama administration opposes any changes to the census, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada — a state that would potentially benefit from counting everyone, regardless of legal status in the country — could block a vote on the Vitter-Bennett amendment.

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