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Commerce secretary denies ulterior motives for census citizenship question

By Brock Hall, Medill News Service and Darryl Coote
Commerce secretary denies ulterior motives for census citizenship question
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross fielded questions from the House oversight committee Thursday over the controversial citizenship question he has attempted to include in the 2020 census. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

March 14 (UPI) -- Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross denied there was any "nefarious purpose" behind the Trump administration's addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census in an appearance Thursday before the House oversight committee.

Ross first proposed the question for inclusion March 26, 2018, stating it is to help enforce Voting Rights Act provisions that protect racial and language minorities -- an explanation that Democrats don't buy. He did so purportedly at the behest of the Justice Department, which he said requested the question's inclusion in December 2017.

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However, Democrats say that documents released as part of a lawsuit show Ross asked the Justice Department to make that request.

Ross repeatedly denied that this was the case as Democrats on the committee grilled him about documents dating back to early 2017.

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"What I was referring to was that I was frustrated that I had not gotten an answer to the question 'Would the Department of Justice formally request the question to be re-instituted or not?'" Ross said. "That's what I had in mind."

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Ross turned over 8,700 documents to the committee, but Democrats on the committee said they were missing documents that were relevant, including emails and memos, and accused Ross of lying under oath.

"So far the committee has been unable to get a copy of these documents despite multiple requests and interviews with your staff and with Department of Justice staff," said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif. "We need your commitment, your full commitment, with these specific communications that we'll get cooperation to get to the facts. Otherwise, it's hard for us not to conclude that you're, at the very least, obfuscating your role in what you said in front of this committee."

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The Justice Department said the question was necessary in order to effectively enforce the Voting Rights Act. House Democrats are skeptical about those motives.

"I do not know anyone who truly believes the Trump administration is interested in enhancing the Voting Rights Act," said Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md. "This administration has done everything in its power to suppress the vote, not to help people exercise their right to vote."

Ross denied that he was hiding any ulterior motives.

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"If I had a nefarious purpose, I surely wouldn't have added $3.2 billion to the budget of the census," Ross said.

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Ross agreed to testify voluntarily only after several weeks of discussions, according to Democrats on the committee.

Critics of the question say undocumented immigrants may be reluctant to fill out the 2020 census if it includes a question about their citizenship status for fear of reprisal.

Since information from the census determines boundaries of congressional districts and allocation of electoral votes for the following 10 years, immigrant communities would thus be under-counted and under-represented in government. The census is also used to allocate federal funds.

Ross said the Census Bureau was already trying to reach these communities.

"My team has initiated a $500 million advertising campaign to assure hard-to-count communities that the census is safe, secure, vital and that all collected data is used for statistical purposes only and cannot be shared with law enforcement bodies," Ross said.

Republican members were generally satisfied with Ross' actions.

"For the life of me, I don't why the Democrats don't want to know how many citizens are in this country," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who suggested the census should go even further in its questioning.

"While I strongly support asking if a person is in this country legally, I am satisfied the public policy goal of enforcing the Voting Rights Act can be accomplished with just the citizenship question," he said.

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The question asks is: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" Since its attempted inclusion in the 2020 census, Ross has fielded three legal challenges from jurisdictions with high immigrant populations, including a coalition suit of 18 states and six cities. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on that case Jan. 15, ordering the question's removal. He said Ross' inclusion of the question was constitutional but "unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons." Furman also found the question undermines representative democracy.

Earlier this month, a California federal judge again blocked the question from inclusion, going further than Furman by stating that it violates administrative law and is unconstitutional.

"In short, the inclusion of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census threatens the very foundation of our democratic system -- and does so based on a self-defeating rationale," U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg of California wrote in his ruling.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the matter April 23 in New York.

If the question is allowed to be included, it will be the first time since the 1950s that questions of citizenship status will be asked.

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