Wilbur Ross Contradicts Trump Administration Rationale For 2020 Census Citizenship Question

The Trump administration's justification for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census just got a whole lot shakier.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross contradicted the Trump administration’s justification for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, revealing for the first time Thursday that he began to consider adding the question even before the Department of Justice requested that he do so.

The disclosure came in a supplemental memo filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit challenging the addition of the citizenship question. The memo is significant because the Trump administration has said that the request to add the citizenship question originated with the Department of Justice, which wanted better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. DOJ asked the Department of Commerce to add the question in December 2017, but Ross revealed for the first time on Thursday that other senior administration officials had raised it earlier and he had been considering it.

Ross said he had begun considering adding a citizenship question after he was appointed commerce secretary (he was confirmed in February 2017) and that he was the one who approached the Justice Department about adding the question.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Soon after my appointment as Secretary of Commerce, I began considering various fundamental issues regarding the upcoming 2020 Census, including funding and content. Part of these considerations included whether to reinstate a citizenship question, which other senior Administration officials had previously raised,” he wrote in the memo. “My staff and I thought reinstating a citizenship question could be warranted, and we had various discussions with other governmental officials about reinstating a citizenship question to the Census.

“As part of that deliberative process, my staff and I consulted with Federal governmental components and inquired whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) would support, and if so would request, inclusion of a citizenship question as consistent with and useful for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.”

“In the interest of transparency and expeditious resolution of frivolous litigation, Secretary Ross filed a supplemental memorandum today clarifying the circumstances leading up to DOJ’s December 2017 request to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census,” a Commerce spokesman said in a statement on Friday. The Justice Department declined to comment.

Ross, who is responsible for overseeing the U.S. Census Bureau, announced the census would add a question about citizenship in March, pointing to the DOJ request.

“Following receipt of the DOJ request, I set out to take a hard look at the request and ensure that I considered all facts and data relevant to the question so that I could make an informed decision on how to respond,” he wrote in March.

Census Bureau officials said they conducted a review of the effect of adding a citizenship question after the Justice Department made its request. Ross’ memo now shows he was interested in adding the question before the request was even made. Former Justice Department officials questioned the request, saying the department already has adequate data to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The supplemental memo is likely to lend fuel to claims by civil rights and immigration groups, who say the DOJ request was merely a pretext for adding the citizenship question. They say that the Trump administration wanted to add the question in order to drive down immigrant response rate. This would have catastrophic consequences because census data is used to determine how electoral boundaries are drawn and how billions of dollars in federal funds are allocated. They have also pointed to the fact that Trump’s re-election campaign fundraised off the decision to add a citizenship question before it was even made.

Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the groups that have lobbied hard against adding the citizenship question, said in a statement that the memo showed the Justice Department request was a false pretext.

“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 Gupta, who was the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama. “This memo, which contradicts what Secretary Ross told stakeholders and testified under oath before Congress, confirms he was complicit in that pretext. It’s clear that Congress needs to further investigate and demand answers on the politicization of what should be a nonpartisan activity.”

This article has been updated with comment from the Department of Commerce.

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