Census Overseers Seeded DOJ's Request To Add Citizenship Question, Memo Shows

Jun 21, 2018
Originally published on July 11, 2018 7:10 pm

Updated June 22 at 5:30 p.m. ET:

Months before he was asked to review a Justice Department request for a citizenship question to be added to the 2020 census, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross already had concluded that including one "could be warranted." In fact, Ross and his staff asked the Justice Department to submit the formal request for the controversial question, according to a newly released memo written by the Commerce secretary.

The memo contradicts Ross' testimony during the House Ways and Means Committee's March 22 hearing, when the Commerce secretary told Democratic Rep. Judy Chu of California that the Justice Department "initiated the request" for a citizenship question.

This document reveals Ross was involved in discussions about a citizenship question in the early months of the Trump administration. After Ross was appointed to head the Commerce Department, he and his staff asked the DOJ whether it "would support, and if so would request, inclusion of a citizenship question as consistent with and useful for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act," according to the memo.

Ross — who oversees the Census Bureau and has the discretionary authority to add questions to census forms that federal law requires all U.S. households to complete — announced his approval of the controversial citizenship question in March. His decision came after the Justice Department submitted a formal request for the question — as Ross had asked — to the Census Bureau in December 2017.

In the new memo, Ross wrote that he began considering adding a citizenship question "soon after" he was confirmed as Commerce secretary in February 2017. "My staff and I thought reinstating a citizenship question could be warranted," he said, noting that the issue was raised by other "senior" Trump administration officials.

Ross and other Trump administration officials have said the driving force to add the question is a need for a better count of voting-age citizens to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which has relied on citizenship estimates ever since the law was enacted in 1965.

Ross' memo raises questions about what else may have motivated the administration to push for the question, which the Census Bureau's chief scientist, John Abowd, warned would be costly, harmful to the accuracy of the 2020 census and generate "substantially less accurate" citizenship status data than those available in existing government records.

Ross' memo was filed in federal courts Thursday by the Justice Department as part of the lawsuits over the citizenship question. More than two dozen states and cities are suing for the removal of the question, which Census Bureau's own research suggests could discourage noncitizens from taking part in the next once-a-decade head count of every person in the U.S., required in 2020 by the Constitution. The last time the bureau asked all U.S. households about citizenship was in 1950.

In Commerce Department emails filed in federal courts earlier this month, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who once helped lead President Trump's now-defunct voter fraud commission, wrote that he spoke with Ross about the then lack of census citizenship question in 2017 "at the direction of Steve Bannon," the former chief White House strategist.

The Voting Rights Act was not mentioned in Kobach's July 2017 emails to Ross and his staff. Instead, Kobach wrote about his concern that "aliens who do not actually 'reside' in the United States are still counted" in census numbers used to determine how congressional seats distributed among the states.

Neither Kobach nor Bannon have responded to NPR's requests for comment. The Commerce Department previously has avoided providing details about Ross' communication with Kobach. In an email, a spokesperson wrote, "The notion that Secretary Ross decided to reinstate the citizenship question in response to a single email is clearly disproved by the robust administrative record" of documents submitted for the lawsuits over the citizenship question.

The Commerce Department spokesperson has also avoided answering NPR's inquiries about Ross' March 22 testimony to members of Congress, the Trump administration officials Ross referred to in his memo, and why Ross thought a citizenship question "could be warranted."

"In the interest of transparency and expeditious resolution of frivolous litigation, Secretary Ross filed a supplemental memorandum [Thursday] clarifying the circumstances leading up to DOJ's December 2017 request to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the citizenship question lawsuits, however, are calling for the Trump administration to release additional documents as part of the courts' review of whether Ross' approval of the question was politically motivated.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Trump administration has released a new memo about what went into the decision to add a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 census. The memo was filed today in the federal courts. That's where more than two dozen states and cities are suing the administration to get the question removed. The Census Bureau's chief scientist has warned that including the question could harm the accuracy of the upcoming national headcount.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering these census lawsuits. He's with us now. Hey there, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Tell us what you know about what's in the memo.

WANG: Well, I just read this memo that was filed in the court. And basically it's from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau. He also was the one who approved adding the citizenship question. He wrote - writes in this memo that soon after he was appointed as commerce secretary - this is in February 2017 - he started considering whether to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and that he - this was an issue that he says that a lot of senior administration officials were discussing. And so this really raises questions about a timeline where previously we thought that this all started - this whole discussion about the citizenship question was because the Justice Department put in a request for it in December of 2017 to add a citizenship question, sent a letter to the Census Bureau.

CORNISH: Questions about the timeline - what do you mean by that? What does this tell us about what drove this administration decision?

WANG: This is the really big question here because as far - up until now, the Trump administration has said that this is really driven by the Voting Rights Act, specifically Section 2 of it, the provision to prevent racial discrimination, that the Justice Department, in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act, needed a better count of voting-age citizens. And previously and ever since the Voting Rights Act has been enacted, the Justice Department has used estimates of the citizenship population.

But this memo and these discussions that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is alluding to raises questions about what other - what else was part of those discussions? In previous documents the Commerce Department has released - they included an internal email that was sent that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross received from Kris Kobach, the former co-chair of the now-defunct voting fraud commission that President Trump commission.

And that email - Kris Kobach did not bring up the Voting Rights Act. And he was discussing instead concern that noncitizens were included in the census numbers used to reapportion seats in Congress. And so was that an issue driving this decision? That - this memo really raises that question. And what other conversations was Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross part of?

CORNISH: Now, remind us why Census Bureau researchers believe that just having the question on there could somehow lead to inaccurate census numbers in 2020.

WANG: Right. Some people may think this is an innocuous question, but Census Bureau researchers as well as a lot of immigrant advocates are really worried that given this current climate of increased immigration enforcement, a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, that a lot of noncitizens will be very concerned about answering this question which will ask, you know, is this person a citizen of the United States, essentially? And answering this question, people are worried - what will the government do with this data?

This is a question that the Census Bureau has not asked all U.S. households since 1950, so this would be a major change. And the concern is, you know, if noncitizens are not counted, that will make sure - that could lead to them not appearing in the population numbers used to reapportion seats in Congress and distribute federal funding.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Hansi, thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome.

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