In May 2017, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, only two months into his tenure, emailed his top aide to complain that he was “mystified” that “nothing” had been done in response to his “months old” request to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The aide, Earl Comstock, responded to the frustration by reassuring him that the Commerce Department would not submit the final census questions to Congress until March 2018.
“We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question, and we have court cases to illustrate that DoJ has a legitimate need for the question to be included,” Comstock emailed Ross.
Many months later, the Justice Department would formally request the question. Until recently, it was the Trump administration’s official line that Ross, in seeking to add it, was responding to the Justice Department’s rationale that the census citizenship data would help with Voting Rights Act enforcement — a rationale that many former DOJ officials have rejected.
That May 2017 exchange and other emails released Monday night as part of lawsuits challenging the question seem to bolster the arguments of the question’s critics that the Justice Department rationale was an after-the-fact rationale.
Opponents of the citizenship question — which include civil rights activists, minority groups and census policy wonks — fear asking the question will discourage immigrant families from participating in the survey. An undercount of those populations would shift political power and resources away from them. Furthermore, some GOP lawmakers have expressed a desire to use the citizenship data for redistricting and even congressional apportionment — a massive change that would shrink the political influence of urban and diverse communities.
In a statement Tuesday, a Commerce spokesman said that “nothing in the court-ordered supplemental production changes the sound rationale” Ross “articulated” in his March 2018 memo announcing the addition of the question.
“The documents reinforce that executive branch officials worked together to ensure that Secretary Ross received all of the information necessary to make an informed decision after taking a hard look at the question and considering all facts relevant as shown in the documents provided to the court and the public,” the spokesman said. “These documents also demonstrate that the citizenship question was one of many important census issues that the Secretary began considering shortly after his arrival.”
However, back in March 2018, Ross testified in front of Congress that the Justice Department “initiated the request” to add the question.
He has since had to acknowledge, in a memo filed in the litigation last month, that he began considering the question soon after his appointment and that he inquired whether the DOJ would make a request as part of the “deliberative process” of discussing the question with other federal officials.
Even before the May 2017 exchange, the emails suggest Ross and other political appointees at Commerce were interested in adding questions to the census.
A February 2, 2017 email exchange between two longtime Commerce officials said that “Earl is very interested” in the agency’s move that Spring to notify Congress of the 2020 census subjects. He “thinks the Secretary will be as well,” the email said.
Comstock in April 2017 emailed Mark Neuman, co-chair of the monitoring board of the U.S. Census Commission, asking when the Census Bureau must submit to Congress the questions for the decennial survey. After the May 2, 2017 “mystified” email from Ross about adding the question, another one of his aides suggested another meeting with “Marc Neumann.”
On May 3, 2017, Commerce’s White House liaison reached out to the White House seeking a contact at the Justice Department “Regarding” a “Census and Legislative issue.” The liaison then forwarded the DOJ contact to Comstock.
Later that month, a Commerce official, after sitting in a meeting with Ross, emailed Census Bureau officials that the “Secretary seemed interested on subjects and puzzled why citizenship is not included in 2020,” according to the partially redacted email chain.
Throughout the summer, there are more references in the emails alluding to citizenship or adding a question, including a June 28 appointment for Comstock to meet with a Commerce lawyer about “Census and Citizenship,” a Commerce official’s July 25 inquiry with Census about the process of approving a question, and an Aug. 28 request for a briefing with Ross on “key legal questions” surrounding the census.
More than three months later, the Justice Department would make its formal request to add the question. A Commerce attorney would flag the Dec. 12 request for acting Census Bureau director Ron Jarmin three days later. By Jan. 3, Census had put together a draft of an initial technical review of the request that said adding the question would be “very costly and does harm the quality of the census count by increasing erroneous enumerations.”
In an email chain about the draft, a Census official noted that 9.9 percent of households had at least one non-citizen, while another said that it’s “important to stress again that the impacts on cost and quality could be higher than we calculate.”
Jarmin at the time was also seeking to set up a meeting with Justice Department to discuss their request, according to emails obtained previously by ProPublica.
It’s unclear from the emails released Monday if that meeting ever happened, but by early February the Census Bureau was getting the cold shoulder from the Justice Department.
“They believe the letter requesting citizenship be added to the 2020 Census fully describes their request. They do not want to meet,” Jarmin said in an email to another Census Bureau official.