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Trump Administration Fighting To Shield Information On Census Citizenship Question

But its story about how the decision was made to add the question keeps changing

October 18, 2018

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has raised the temperature in an ongoing legal dispute about the 2020 United States Census. In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation on Monday, Sessions criticized a court order that allows Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to be questioned about the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the census. 

In his remarks, Sessions called the court order by U.S. Judge Jesse M. Furman “outrageous,” adding: “That’s why we’re taking these cases to the appellate courts and to the Supreme Court." 

Furman’s order was upheld by the 2ndCircuit Court of Appeals last week. The Supreme Court is currently considering the administration’s request to block Furman’s order.

The pending legal challenges involve the Commerce Department’s controversial move, announced by Ross in March, to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. “A citizenship question is very likely to affect the quality and accuracy of the census by deterring participation in it, especially in vulnerable communities,” wrote Kelly Percival, counsel in the Democracy program at the Brennan Center. 

Several lawsuits are challenging the administration’s effort to add the citizenship question. The issue could come before the Supreme Court next year on the merits. 

Here’s why adding a citizenship question is problematic — and why we need to know more about Secretary Ross’s rationale for reinstating it.

Adding a citizenship question to the census is highly problematic

Asking census respondents to report their citizenship status could limit participation in the 2020 census and severely compromise its accuracy. That could have major knock-on effects. “The census touches virtually every aspect of our lives, determining our political representation, shaping how federal resources are allocated, powering our businesses, driving decisions by schools and police departments, and informing medical research,” wrote Wendy R. Weiser and Thomas Wolf, director and counsel, respectively, in the Democracy program at the Brennan Center. An inaccurate census could negatively alter the distribution of political power and funding at federal, state, and local levels. 

Six lawsuits were filed after the Commerce Department’s announcement in March. As Percival writes, these lawsuits assert that the citizenship question is unconstitutional because it would “violate the federal government’s duty under the Constitution to count the ‘whole number of persons’ in the United States.” Census professionals have argued that a citizenship question would significantly reduce participation in the census. In particular, the question could raise privacy concerns among undocumented individuals, who worry their census responses could be used against them.

Wilbur Ross’s story about the citizenship question keeps changing

When the Commerce Department announced the reintroduction of the citizenship question in March, Ross claimed that the decision was initiated by the Justice Department in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. However, Ross has since changed his explanation for the citizenship question, according to court documents filed last Thursday, just days before Sessions’s comments at the Heritage Foundation.

Ross now says he recalls speaking with former senior White House adviser Steve Bannon and Sessions in 2017, according to the Justice Department filing. Bannon recommended Ross speak with Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, a supporter of restrictive voting laws.

This isn’t the only detail on which Ross has changed his story on the issue. In June, Ross issued a supplemental memo saying he reached out to DOJ about the issue, contradicting his claim in June that DOJ came to him. And this spring, Ross told Congress he wasn’t aware of any political contacts being consulted. That’s contradicted by the recent filing mentioning Bannon and Kobach.

We need to know why Wilbur Ross called for the citizenship question

Ross had previously testified under oath saying he didn’t know of any conversations he’d had with anyone in the White House about the citizenship question. However, his story is changing, and he appears to have spoken with Sessions himself.

The issue matters because Americans need to have faith that illegitimate political concerns aren’t compromising the census. And in order to determine whether the addition of the question reflects unconstitutional racial bias, as the plaintiffs in the challenges claim, we need the full set of facts.

(Image: Aaron Bernstein/Getty)