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Just over 200 years ago in Philadelphia, America's founders discussed and debated how a new nation should govern itself. Weeks became months as men like Washington, Jefferson and Madison worked to create a document that today stands as the symbol of the greatest democracy history has known.

This document outlines the privileges, protections and responsibilities of being a citizen of the United States. Throughout, and at its very foundation, lies the most basic and vital principle for any democratic government: one man, one vote.Of course that document is the Constitution. It has grown and prospered because, as the founding fathers correctly envisioned, a true democratic form of government, where citizens have a right to full and fair representation, will flourish.

That most vital right is under attack - and by our own government. One year from now the census will be under way. Plans proposed by the U.S. Census Bureau call for counting illegal aliens as American citizens. Seats in the House of Representatives, the "People's Chamber," will then be reapportioned based on the population counts of the 50 states; these counts will include illegal aliens as U.S. citizens.

It won't be the first time illegal aliens have been included in the census. In 1980 the Census Bureau made an effort to count illegal aliens for the first time, spending millions of taxpayer dollars on a public education campaign to encourage these people to fill out census forms.

As a result, approximately 2 million illegal aliens were counted. California, a state with a high illegal alien population, gained a seat in the House of Representatives. Indiana and Georgia, states with relatively no illegal aliens, lost seats in the House.

In 1990 the Census Bureau again plans to count illegal aliens as U.S. citizens.

Thus, as in 1980, men and women who have entered this country illegally will be given the same voice in our democratic process as you and I.

That's wrong.

The practice of using illegal aliens to determine representation in Congress is ill-conceived, illogical and unfair. It violates the very principle on which this nation was founded and on which the Constitution was written: Self-government, whether direct or through representatives, is the right and privilege of United States citizens, its legal citizens.

I do not take this position out of ill will toward those who seek to escape desperate situations or pursue the freedom and opportunity of our nation. America has a rich tradition of offering a new beginning to immigrants from all nations. That must not change. We have welcomed, we have grown, we have developed as a country by opening our doors to people trying to escape poverty or persecution.

We are a nation of immigrants. German-born statesman Henry Kissinger, Polish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, Scottish industrialist Andrew Carnegie and Italian-born Mother Cabrini, the first U.S. citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church, are but a handful of the thousands of immigrants who have enriched the political, cultural and economic life of the United States. Even today legal immigrants continue to come to America. We welcome them. They will help make us a better nation.

However, illegal aliens are citizens of another country. They have defied our laws by the way they entered our country. They cannot vote. They cannot be legally employed. They are here without the consent of you and me. They should not be counted in the population base for reapportionment.

I cherish the right to vote. With that simple yet powerful privilege we, the citizens of the United States, have the power to govern ourselves. It should be left with those who reside lawfully within our country.

(Rep. Ridge is a Republican from Pennsylvania.)