WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday of secretly orchestrating the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, citing an email they say shows he misled Congress about the decision.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the House oversight panel, said documents show Ross engaged in a campaign to add the question from the first days he joined the Commerce Department.
“These documents showed that he was not merely responding to a request from another agency,” Cummings said. “To the contrary, he was choreographing these efforts behind the scenes, he became impatient when his demands were not being met, and he was working directly with officials at the highest levels of the Trump administration to force this issue through.”
Ross testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in an often contentious hearing. He stuck with his explanation from previous hearings that Justice Department officials made a formal request to include the citizenship question to help it enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Census Bureau initiated a review to consider alternatives to DOJ’s request. Ultimately, Ross determined that reinstating the question was warranted. It was added in March 2018.
Some 18 states, 15 big cities or counties, and immigrants’ rights groups have sued the Commerce Department, claiming it failed to properly analyze the effect of the question on households with immigrants.
Two federal judges have declared the move illegal. A federal judge in New York had previously blocked the administration from adding the question to the population count that occurs every 10 years, and the Supreme Court last month agreed to review that decision.
Democratic lawmakers accused Ross of misleading Congress because he testified “we are responding solely to the Department of Justice’s request.”
The most withering criticism came from Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who said Ross withheld critical information from Congress about what led up to the decision. He read an email from Ross that came months before the DOJ’s request for the citizenship question, which stated: “I am mystified why nothing have been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?”
Clay said Ross failed to mention the memo when testifying to Congress previously and asked him whether he wanted to “take responsibility today for misleading Congress, whether intentionally or not about the process you followed to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census.”
“I have never intentionally misled Congress or intentionally said anything incorrect under oath,” Ross said.
Clay refused to accept that answer and accused Ross of being “complicit in the Trump’s administration’s intent to suppress the growing political power of the non-white population.” He said Ross should resign.
The Trump administration’s decision to ask people about their citizenship has set off worries among Democrats that immigrants and their families will dodge the survey altogether, diluting political representation for states that tend to vote Democratic and robbing many communities of federal dollars.
Ross sought to emphasize that the Trump administration has boosted spending for the census and that it was using the money to increase its advertising budget and hire more community partners.
“We have done all kinds of things we can think of to make sure we have the best census possible,” Ross said.