Documents Shed Light On Decision To Add Census Citizenship Question

Jun 10, 2018
Originally published on May 21, 2019 1:51 pm

Updated on June 15

Why did Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, approve adding a hotly contested citizenship question to 2020 census forms?

Ross has said the driving force is the need for more accurate citizenship data, which he wants to collect during the next once-a-decade head count of every person in the country as required by the U.S. Constitution.

The question was requested this past December by the Justice Department, which says it needs data from the census to better enforce the Voting Rights Act's provisions against racial discrimination. Since the law was enacted in 1965, the federal government has relied on estimates of the citizen population based on Census Bureau surveys involving a sample of U.S. households.

But critics of the new citizenship question — including more than two dozen states and cities who are taking the Trump administration to court to remove it — say they are skeptical of the Justice Department's reasoning. They're concerned that a question about citizenship status — a topic that the Census Bureau has not included in the census for all households since 1950 — will discourage noncitizens from participating in the census, especially given the increased immigration enforcement and rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric under President Trump.

On June 8, the Commerce Department released 1,320 pages of internal memos, emails and other documents related to Ross's decision as part of the lawsuits against the citizenship question. They provide some new insight into the behind-the-scenes discussions leading up to the commerce secretary's controversial announcement in March — one that could have ripple effects on the 2020 census results that will be used to reallocate congressional seats, draw legislative districts and distribute an estimated $800 billion a year in federal funds.

Census Bureau officials warned about a "very costly" citizenship question

In a Jan. 19 internal memo prepared for Ross, the Census Bureau's chief scientist, John Abowd, wrote that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census "is very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available" from existing government records at other federal agencies.

Ross has said that he believes the cost of this last-minute change to the 2020 census would not be significant and has been factored into updated cost estimates. Still, Abowd projected that it would raise the price tag for the national head count by at least $27.5 million, which he described as a "conservative estimate" given the possible need for more door-knocking and other follow-up efforts to get noncitizen households to take part in the census.

"At the direction of Steve Bannon," Kris Kobach spoke with Ross about a citizenship question

In a July 2017 email to Ross's chief of staff, Wendy Teramoto, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach says Steve Bannon — the former White House strategist — directed Kobach to speak on the phone with Ross in 2017 during the early months of the Trump administration about the then lack of a citizenship question on the census. Kobach had once helped lead Trump's now-dissolved voter fraud commission.

Neither Kobach nor Bannon have responded to NPR's requests for comment about this email. A Commerce Department spokesperson would not provide any details about the phone call between Kobach and Ross. "The Kobach email is one out of over 500 pages of stakeholder records produced in the administrative record," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "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."

Still, after this communication was revealed, attorneys for plaintiffs in some of the citizenship question lawsuits filed a motion in San Francisco federal court to request that Kobach and Bannon testify out of court.

Kobach told Ross including "aliens" in census numbers for congressional reapportionment is a "problem"

In another July 2017 email, Kobach wrote to Ross that he was concerned that "aliens who do not actually 'reside' in the United States are still counted" in census numbers used to determine how many congressional seats each state gets.

Noncitizens have been included in past population counts used for reapportioning seats in the House of Representatives among states ever since the first census in 1790.

Later in his email, Kobach proposed wording for a census citizenship question that would ask noncitizens about their immigration status.

The Census Bureau is trying to get access to citizenship information from other federal agencies

Before Ross decided to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the Census Bureau's acting director, Ron Jarmin, and other officials tried to convince him to meet the Justice Department's needs by using existing government records about U.S. citizens.

Ross ultimately decided to allow the bureau to request access to federal data sets to supplement the 2020 census responses to the new citizenship question. A draft internal Census Bureau document shows that the statistical agency has been working to get access to naturalization data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, visa and passport data from the State Department, and records from the Social Security Administration. A spokesperson for the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, says the information detailed in the document is up-to-date.

A spokesperson for the Social Security Administration, Darren Lutz, confirmed that the agency is "currently working with the Census Bureau to renew" a data-sharing agreement that expires at the end of September.

Spokespeople for USCIS and the State Department said they could not address NPR's questions about the bureau's data requests by publication time.

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More than two dozen cities and states are suing the Trump administration over a controversial decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. As part of those lawsuits, the administration has released more than a thousand pages of documents related to this decision to add the question, and NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been taking a look at those documents. He joins us.

Hey, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what are you learning here?

WANG: Well, there is an internal census memo from January in these documents. This memo was prepared for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census. And this memo says that the Census Bureau officials - specifically, the Census Bureau scientist - chief scientist - he wrote that it's very costly to add a citizenship question, and that adding a citizenship question would harm the quality of the census count and that there are, in fact, existing citizenship records from other government agencies that could be used that would be more accurate than from whatever they collect from a citizenship question and (unintelligible) responses.

And months before this memo was prepared for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross - and this is early in the Trump administration, 2017 - there were emails sent to the commerce secretary and his staff from Kris Kobach. He's the Kansas secretary of state. You may remember him as helping to lead this voter fraud commission that President Trump commissioned. It's now defunct. Kobach says he was directed by Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, to talk to Ross about adding a citizenship question. And Kobach in another email urges the commerce secretary to add a citizenship question to the census.

GREENE: So you have a chief election officer from a state who's lobbying for something that officials inside the Census Bureau are saying might be a bad, costly idea.

WANG: That's right. And it's certainly - it's important to point out here the timeline here. The Census Bureau gave its opinion on the citizenship question months after these emails were exchanged. And, you know, what's really unusual is that, you know, this communication happened in the early days of the administration and also that Kris Kobach in these emails is saying that he would like to see noncitizens excluded from the population counts that are used to reapportion congressional seats among the states. And he also suggests wording for a citizenship question that would ask noncitizens about their immigration status. Now, I have reached out to both Kris Kobach and Steve Bannon to get some comment on these emails - no response so far. The Commerce Department spokesperson has gotten back to me and says that this single email from Kris Kobach was not the deciding factor in Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' decision.

GREENE: Not the deciding factor. OK, well, step back, if you can, Hansi, and just frame for us the arguments for and against including a question about citizenship on a census.

WANG: Well, the commerce secretary says he approved this proposal because it came from the Justice Department. The Justice Department says it needs better count of citizens to better enforce the Voting Rights Act and specifically provisions to prevent racial discrimination. But the critics of this question say this question has not been tested. There's a long process the Census Bureau goes through to vet questions, to prepare the census forms, to make sure that there is a complete count of people who live in the country, which is what the Constitution requires. And they're very concerned that noncitizens will look at this question and be fearful of responding because they're not sure what would happen with this information, given this current climate of increased immigration enforcement and anti-immigrant rhetoric under President Trump.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, who's been following this controversial question that's been proposed on the U.S. Census Bureau about citizenship. Hansi, thanks a lot.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.