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Commerce secretary suggested citizenship question to Justice Dept., according to memo, contradicting his congressional testimony

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

In a new twist in the battle over adding a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 Census, Secretary Wilbur Ross filed an unexpected memo Thursday revealing that he was already considering adding the question when he began his job in February 2017, after hearing from other senior administration officials on the subject.

The statement contradicts his earlier testimony to Congress saying he explored adding the question in response to a December 2017 request by the Department of Justice.

In the memo, filed in response to litigation challenging the question, Ross said he and his staff had “inquired whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) would support, and if so would request, inclusion of a citizenship question.”

The memo sparked speculation that as-yet unreleased documents may exist showing Ross was actively discussing the question far earlier than he had indicated.

The administration has said the question of citizenship, which has not appeared on a decennial census since 1950, is needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Critics say that it is not necessary for that purpose and that it is political chess move meant to deter immigrants and their families from filling out the census form.

Census experts inside and outside the bureau have warned that adding the question will depress response rates and lead to a less accurate and more costly count. Data from the decennial survey is used to draw legislative districts, reallocate congressional seats and determine how hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds are spent.

Citizens could also lose services if a citizenship question is added to census

Critics of the question said the memo filed Thursday bolsters their argument that support for it was politically motivated.

“This newly released document reveals that the Commerce Department pressed the Justice Department to ask for the citizenship question to be added to the census — not the other way around,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement.

“This document suggests that the Voting Rights Act was nothing more than a pretext for adding the citizenship question for political reasons, and it raises grave questions about whether Secretary Ross and other Commerce Department officials misled Congress when they concealed this fact and testified repeatedly that they were merely responding to the Justice Department’s request,” Cummings said.

A Commerce Department spokesman told The Washington Post that the memo had been filed “in the interest of transparency and expeditious resolution of frivolous litigation.” The Justice Department declined to comment.

At a March 22 hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, Ross said the Justice Department had “initiated the request” for the question, adding, “Because it is from the Department of Justice, we are taking it very seriously, and we will issue a fulsome documentation of whatever conclusion we finally come to.” Ross made similar sworn statements at other hearings before and after announcing March 26 that the question would be added to the decennial count.

The announcement sparked a legal and political wildfire. At least six lawsuits have been filed opposing the question, including one by 18 states and cities. Lawmakers opposing the question have said they will seek to block funding for it and called for internal Trump administration documentation on how the request for the question came about.

Two weeks ago, the Commerce Department released over 1,300 pages of emails, memos and other documents related to Ross’s decision to add the question to the 2020 Census. The cache, released as part of the lawsuits, included an exchange from July 2017 in which Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who at one point led President Trump’s now-defunct voter fraud commission, said he had spoken with Ross about the citizenship question “at the direction of Steve Bannon,” a reference to Trump’s former chief strategist. In one email, Kobach proposed specific language for a citizenship question and said it was “essential” to add it to the census.

The documents also included an analysis by the Census Bureau’s chief scientist warning that adding the question would be “very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available” from existing federal records.

On Friday, critics blasted Ross and the administration over the memo.

“We already knew the argument offered by the Sessions Justice Department that the citizenship question was critical for Voting Rights Act enforcement was a false pretext to carry out the agenda of political operatives like Steven Bannon and Kris Kobach,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Jeff Sessions is attorney general.

“This memo, which contradicts what Secretary Ross told stakeholders and testified under oath before Congress, confirms he was complicit in that pretext,” Gupta said.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, said: “We now know that Secretary Ross deceived Congress, stakeholders and the public about his decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. He has burned a hole in the integrity of the census and the Census Bureau as a nonpartisan, scientific agency, and it could take years to restore public confidence in the agency’s work.”

Cummings said Democrats are renewing their request for a committee vote to issue subpoenas for still-unreleased documents relating to the citizenship question.