USA: Documents Show Political Lobbying in Census Question About Citizenship

Not surprising. Echoes of the Conservative government’s approach to the 2011 Census/National Household Survey:

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.

The Kansas secretary of state, Kris W. Kobach, who has taken a strong position against illegal immigration and was appointed by President Trump to a now-defunct panel on voter fraud, had advocated the question directly with the secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, according to the documents. In a July 2017 email to an aide to Mr. Ross, Mr. Kobach said that he had reached out to the secretary a few months earlier “on the direction of Steve Bannon,” then the White House chief strategist.

In an email to Mr. Ross, Mr. Kobach urged the addition of the question, saying that including undocumented 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 documents were released by the Justice Department late Friday night 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 includes letters of support from others who endorse the question, including Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia.

Mr. Ross defended the addition 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.

The Commerce Department added in a statement that “the notion that Secretary Ross decided to reinstate the citizenship question in response to a single email” is disproved by the fact that Mr. Kobach’s note is but one of the more than 500 pages of records produced.

Many of the letters in the documents released support the legal justification for the inclusion of the question. Mr. Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said it was necessary to uphold Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits United States 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,” Mr. Goodlatte wrote.

Arthur Gary, the general counsel in the Justice Department’s justice management division, also invoked the enforcement of that Act as reason to include the question, according to the documents.

But there were also detailed scientific arguments opposing it, according to an analysis conducted by John M. Abowd, the chief scientist and associate director for research and methodology at the United States Census Bureau, that was included in the documents. The impact of asking about citizenship would be “major potential quality and cost disruptions,” it asserted.

The research also showed that the cost of adding this question, Mr. 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.

“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,” Mr. 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.

“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.

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

The office of Mr. Kobach did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did Mr. Bannon immediately respond.

In response to the release of the documents, Representative 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 United States 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.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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