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Wilbur Ross actively pushed to add citizenship question to 2020 Census, documents show

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

A cache of documents released by the Commerce Department late Monday night provides further evidence that Secretary Wilbur Ross was pushing to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census far more actively, and much earlier, than his later sworn testimony indicated.

The documents, released as part of a multistate lawsuit against the question’s addition, also reveal deeper involvement of senior administration officials in pushing for the question than earlier indicated, and attempts to drum up support from experts in the face of overwhelming criticism from former Census Bureau directors and the bureau’s chief statistician.

In a May 2, 2017, email to Earl Comstock, director of the department’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, Ross wrote: “I am mystified why nothing have [sic] been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?”

Comstock responded the same day, promising to “get that in place” and adding, “We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question, and we have the court cases to illustrate that DoJ has a legitimate need for the question to be included.”

This appears to contradict Ross’s testimony in March before the House Ways and Means Committee saying that the Justice Department had initiated the request for the question.

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The purpose given by the administration for wanting to add it was to better enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Critics called it a political move to disenfranchise immigrants and siphon political power from states with large immigrant populations, many of which are more heavily Democratic.

Census experts have warned that adding the question would depress response rates and lead to a less accurate and more costly count. Census data is used to appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding, draw legislative districts and reallocate congressional seats.

Ross made similar sworn statements at other hearings before and after announcing March 26 that the controversial question would be added.

The announcement sparked six lawsuits challenging the question, including the one in which the new documents were released, filed by the office of New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood on behalf of 18 states, the District of Columbia, nine cities, four counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In response, Ross filed an unexpected memo in June 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 new documents reveal further evidence of the involvement of such officials, including Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. An April 5, 2017, email from Brooke Alexander, Ross’s executive assistant, stated, “Steve Bannon has asked that the Secretary talk to someone about the Census.” The recipient of the email was identified as “Mrs. Ross”; the secretary’s wife is Hilary Geary Ross.

The documents also appear to reveal that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions supported adding the question; a Sept. 17, 2017, email from his office said he was “eager to assist” in the matter.

Asked about the new documents, a Commerce Department spokesman suggested that the early conversations about adding the question were standard practice.

“Executive branch officials discussing important issues before formulating policy is evidence of good government, and the secretary’s previous testimony before Congress is consistent with that fact,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

“Secretary Ross clearly explained why he chose to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census in his March 26, 2018, decision memorandum. Nothing in the court-ordered supplemental production changes the sound rationale he articulated in March,” the spokesman said.

He added that the documents “demonstrate that the citizenship question was one of many important census issues that the secretary began considering shortly after his arrival.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the new documents. The Census Bureau referred requests for comment to the Commerce Department.

In internal memos, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist had warned 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, according to documents released last month in the case. Six former Census Bureau directors serving under Republican and Democrat administrations also had opposed adding the question.

The new documents include Feb. 13, 2018, emails between acting Census Bureau director Ron Jarmin and Michael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute that apparently refer to administration attempts to garner support for the question from experts.

“None of my colleagues at AEI would speak favorably about the proposal,” Strain wrote. “Is it important that the person actually be in favor of the proposal?”

Jarmin responded, “We are trying to find someone who can give a professional expression of support for the proposal in contrast to the many folks we can find to give professional statements against the proposal.”

To critics of the question, the latest documents support the case for the question being politically motivated.

“This shows that the census became a tool from the early days of this administration to further their anti-immigrant agenda and that Ross was complicit,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Noting that Ross held “stakeholder engagement” meetings on the question in February, she said: “It’s clear that was a pro forma, check-the-box thing. All these documents reveal how precooked this was. . . . I think there’s a real question about whether he misled Congress.”

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on Tuesday called on Ross to appear before Congress to clarify the contradiction in his sworn testimony.

Other lawmakers went farther in their criticism.

“These just-released emails between Secretary Ross and his staff make it clear that voting rights enforcement was nothing more than a manufactured ruse to justify adding a citizenship question and that the secretary lied to Congress when he said it was DOJ that ‘initiated the request,’ ” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), co-chair of the House Census Caucus.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said, “Lying to Congress is a serious criminal offense, and Secretary Ross must be held accountable.”

The administration is expected to release more documents from the Commerce and Justice Departments later this week.