In an August 2017 email exchange with a top aide about adding a citizenship citizenship question to the census form, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he would call Attorney General Jeff Sessions if the Justice Department had not “come to a conclusion” in its “analysis.”
The email, among the thousands of pages of documents released late last week as part of the litigation over the addition of the citizenship question to decennial form, was just one of a number showing Ross’ eagerness to see the question included on the 2020 survey — even before the Trump administration finished formulating the ostensible reason for why it was needed.
The Justice Department did make a formal request for inclusion of the citizenship question in December, but only after months of Ross inquiring with his top aides about the issue, including one November email about census questions where he complained, “We are out of time.”
In congressional testimony in March, Ross said that the request to add the citizenship question was “initiated” by the DOJ. He has since had to walk-back that claim, and clarify that even before his confirmation he was discussing adding the citizenship question, which critics fear will suppress immigrant participation in the census.
The internal communications and documents have fueled allegations by opponents of including the citizenship question that the December DOJ request, which claimed to seek the addition of the citizenship question in order to obtain data for Voting Rights Act enforcement, was merely a pretext.
The document dumps include multiple memos from the Census Bureau’s top scientists recommending better ways to obtain the data, while warning that adding the citizenship question would be costly, and would diminish the quality of the decennial count. Furthermore, the Commerce Department’s initial outreach about adding the question was to top immigration officials in the Trump administration, not voting rights lawyers, the newly released documents show.
As a batch of emails released earlier last week revealed, Ross’ push to add the question was “months old” by April, when he sent an email to Earl Comstock, the director of the Commerce Departments’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, that said “nothing” had been done in response.
“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 replied, promising to meet with DOJ staff that week.
According to a memo he later wrote Ross, Comstock was put in touch, via the White House, with Justice Department official Mary Blanche Hickey, a former Senate staffer for Sessions. They discussed the census citizenship issue in person, the memo said, and Comstock continued to communicate to the Justice Department through its top immigration lawyer, James McHenry.
Comstock also had “several” phone conversations with Gene Hamilton, another ex-Sessions staffer then at the Department of Homeland Security, before Hamilton directed him back to the Justice Department.
Comstock responded to Ross’ Aug. 8 inquiry about the DOJ’s analysis by promising him another memo, which was he was preparing with Commerce Department attorney James Uthmeier.
Uthmeier had taken over the communications with the Justice Department, according to the documents, and their memo — not among the documents released this week — was delivered to Ross on Aug. 11.
It’s unclear whether Ross called Sessions about the issue. An email released earlier last week referenced a call between the two planned in September, but neither the Justice nor Commerce departments would clarify for TPM whether the citizenship question was discussed then, or during any other Sessions-Ross conversation prior to the DOJ’s formal request.
On Aug. 31, Ross complained to Comstock again that he had no update on the “issue of the census question.”
On Nov. 27, Ross emailed another official fretting that the Census Bureau was about to begin translating the questions into multiple languages. “We must have this resolved,” he said.
Once the formal request from the Justice Department did drop, on Dec. 12, officials at the Census Bureau spent the weeks leading up to their Christmas holiday analyzing its potential impact. Their initial assessment, according to a Dec. 22 email sent by acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin to a DOJ official, was that the Justice Department’s voting rights needs would be better met by the Census Bureau collecting already existing administrative citizenship data from other agencies.
The Census Bureau officials continued to study the issue, and produced multiple memos in January and February that all argued that collecting administrative data was a better option than adding the citizenship question.
A Jan. 4 email from a top Census Bureau scientist, John Dowd, said that Commerce Department undersecretary Karen Dunn Kelly preferred this option, and even just maintaining status quo, over adding the citizenship question.
Uthmeier was in touch during this time with the White House, which had also discussed the citizenship question with the Justice Department in December. In one January email, Uthmeier surmised that the formal DOJ request, first reported by ProPublica, was leaked because it was not released by any political employees at Commerce. Commerce public affairs chief Michael Cook unsuccessfully attempted to get the ProPublica reporter to reveal his source, according to another email.
As they approached the March 31 deadline for Ross to announce his decision, Census Bureau officials were anxious about the potential fallout of adding the citizenship question, according to the documents.
Jarmin, remarking on a GOP senator’s legislation to require the citizenship question, noted that the fact that the measure was an amendment to an immigration bill “is going to excite the worst fears in the advocacy community.”
A regional director in Los Angeles worried about two Census Bureau officials’ plans to attend an event with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which vehemently opposes the citizenship question.
“Let me know if we should say ‘no’,” she emailed another official.
A February 2017 memo included in the documents — whose authorship and audience is unclear — flagged that California’s attorney general was thinking about suing if the citizenship question was added.
“Additionally, community advocacy groups are starting to mobilize to encourage their communities to boycott the decennial,” the memo said. “While we can’t quantify the magnitude with which this type of press, media exposure, and community organizing will have on response rates for the 2020, at a minimum we should be making the Secretary aware of the potential ways this type of mobilization will impact the quality of response rates overall and for the particular citizenship question.”
In early March, Census Bureau officials produced for Ross yet another memo, this one assessing “alternative D,” which would combine using the administrative data with adding the citizenship question.
“Alternative D would result in poorer quality citizenship data” than just using the administrative data alone, the memo said. “It would still have all the negative cost and quality implications” of just adding the question.
Ross would go on to choose that option.