Get an accurate count

With all the controversy in recent months over illegal immigration, it seems logical that the federal government would like to have an accurate idea of how many illegal immigrants actually reside in the United States. Instead, however, it appears that immigration officials are intent on making sure that doesn't happen.

The Census Bureau will be conducting another national nose-count in 2010. The goal of a national census is to count not only legal residents who live at a specific address, but also legal immigrants living here temporarily, illegal immigrants, homeless people, those who may move frequently from place to place -- in short, everybody who currently lives within U.S. borders.

With that in mind, Census Bureau officials have asked immigration agents to suspend enforcement raids while the census is under way so the census-takers can do a better job of gauging the overall number of immigrants. Raids during the population count would make an already skittish group even less likely to cooperate with government workers who are supposed to include them in the count.

The request would not set a precedent. Immigration agents held off on raids for several months before and after the 2000 census.

But with the heated debate over immigration policy, perhaps it is too much to expect government agencies to use common sense. Immigration officials last week refused to cooperate with the Census Bureau and suspend raids.

"We won't entertain any request to scale back our efforts," Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Kelly Nantel said.

This macho approach no doubt will please the hard-liners who are focused solely on keeping illegal immigrants out of the country. But hindering census takers from conducting as accurate a count as possible of the number of immigrants -- illegal or otherwise -- is shortsighted.

During the recent debate on reforming immigration policies, those on both sides threw up population figures for illegal immigrants ranging from 8 million to 15 million. The most common estimate is around 12 million. Shouldn't the government be trying to find out if that is accurate or not?

Census workers ask immigrants if they are citizens. They do not ask if they are in the country illegally. But illegal immigrants are more likely to evade being counted if they know immigration agents are out to deport them.

The census is taken only once a decade. Suspending enforcement raids for a few months while the count is under way won't jeopardize national security.

One federal agency ought to be able to cooperate with another long enough to ensure the most accurate population count as possible.