National News

Documents Show Political Lobbying in Census Question About Citizenship

Posted June 9, 2018 11:22 p.m. EDT

Documents released in a lawsuit attempting to block the inclusion of a question about citizenship in the 2020 census show lobbying by anti-immigration hard-liners for the question’s inclusion, and resistance on the part of some census officials to asking it.

In a July 2017 email to an aide to Wilbur Ross, head of the Commerce Department, which oversees the census, Kris W. Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who has taken a strong position against illegal immigration and was appointed by President Trump to a now-defunct panel on voter fraud, notes that the two men had spoken about the issue on at least two occasions — the first, “on the direction of Steve Bannon.”

The documents were released by the Justice Department late Friday in response to a federal lawsuit from the attorneys general of 18 states aimed at blocking the inclusion of the question, which was added to the census questionnaire in March.

The 1,332 pages released by the Commerce Department show a chorus of warnings from scientists, immigrant groups and lawmakers. They also include letters of support from others who endorse the question, including Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

Ross defended the inclusion of the question, pointing to the documents released. “I am confident that after months of review and consideration, this administrative record proves that the return of the citizenship question to the Decennial Census is the right move that will allow our country to have the most complete and accurate census information available,” he said.

His Commerce Department added in a statement that “the Kobach email is one out of over 500 pages of stakeholder records produced in the administrative record.”

“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,” it continued.

Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, supported one of the arguments that led Ross to include the question. He said in a letter disclosed by the Commerce Department that the question was necessary to uphold Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from being denied the right to vote because of race.

“In order to best enforce this prohibition, an accurate enumeration of the number of citizens in America should be conducted, and the most accurate such enumeration would be one in which a question regarding citizenship were reinstated starting with the 2020 census,” Goodlatte wrote.

But according to an analysis conducted by John M. Abowd, the chief scientist and associate director for research and methodology at the U.S. Census Bureau, that was included in the documents, the impact of including it would be “major potential quality and cost disruptions.”

The research showed that the cost of adding this question, Abowd said, would be at least an additional $27.5 million, which would cover Census Bureau personnel having to track down households that did not respond to the census.

“We believe that $27.5 million is a conservative estimate because the other evidence cited in this report suggests that the differences between citizen and noncitizen response rates and data quality will be amplified during the 2020 census compared to historical levels,” Abowd wrote in a Jan. 19 memo.

The Census Scientific Advisory Committee, a group of academics and scientists mandated to review the census by the Congress, also strongly disagreed with the inclusion of the question. “We hold the strong opinion that including citizenship in the 2020 census would be a serious mistake which would result in a substantial lowering of the response rate,” the committee said.

In the email to Ross, Kobach urged the addition of the question, saying that including unauthorized immigrants in the decennial count of the United States population would, among other things, lead to the problem “that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”

The Justice Department also asked the Commerce Department to include the question on the census, according to the documents. “I write on behalf of the department to formally request that the Census Bureau reinstate on the 2020 census questionnaire a question regarding citizenship, formerly included in the so-called long form census,” Arthur Gary, general counsel in the Justice Department’s justice management division, wrote in a letter in December. Gary said the department needs the data to enforce part of the Voting Rights Act.

And Karen Dunn Kelley, a census administrator for the Commerce Department, said in the documents that “I find that the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate.”

“These documents make clear what we already knew — career staff at the Census Bureau warned the political leadership at the Commerce Department that the inclusion of a citizenship question would depress census response rates, increase costs and diminish the quality of census data,” said Vanita Gupta, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Gupta said the release showed political meddling by Kobach and Bannon in the census process.

Kobach’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did Bannon immediately respond.

In response to the release of the documents, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, asked Trey Gowdy, the committee chairman, to subpoena the Commerce and Justice departments. He said the Justice Department omitted “entire categories of requested documents.”

This spring Cummings and other committee members asked both departments for any and all conversations, analyses and documentation related to the citizenship question, including the impact it could have on census response rates and costs. They wanted to know who worked on the issue and whether anyone expressed concerns, inside or outside of government. They specifically asked the Justice Department for all communications related to how the question would help enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department is reviewing the document requests it received this spring from the House, but the information it produced Friday night was for the lawsuit and unrelated to the Oversight Committee’s efforts to obtain information.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Cummings’s statement.

Republican committee members have said they support production of the documents and would vote to subpoena for more information if necessary.

The citizenship question has not been on a decennial census since 1950. It has been on the annual American Community Survey, however, since 2005, but that goes to fewer households, rather than the entire country.

The lawsuit filed in April by 18 attorneys general, six cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors — led by New York — argued that the question would result in an undercount, which would not only “fatally undermine the accuracy of the 2020 census, but will jeopardize critical federal funding needed by states and localities to provide services and support for millions of residents.”

“Further,” the suit continued, “it will deprive historically marginalized immigrant communities of critical public and private resources over the next 10 years.”

A subsequent lawsuit was filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups, charging that asking the citizenship question thwarts the constitutional mandate to accurately count the United States population.