Lawsuit Documents Shed Light On Decision To Add 2020 Census Citizenship Question Emails and memos show Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross overruled Census Bureau concerns and was urged to exclude noncitizens from census numbers used to reallocate congressional seats.

Documents Shed Light On Decision To Add Census Citizenship Question

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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.

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