WASHINGTON — The Trump administration tried to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 census that would benefit Republicans, despite initial concerns within the administration that it wasn’t legal, according to a new trove of documents released by Congress on Wednesday.
“The Committee’s investigation has exposed how a group of political appointees sought to use the census to advance an ideological agenda and potentially exclude non-citizens from the apportionment count,” the report released by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform said.
Trump’s then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had argued that adding a question on citizenship and immigration status to the constitutionally required population count would help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act.
But opponents argued at the time that all it would do was scare off undocumented immigrants and their relatives, leading to a significant undercount of America’s non-white population. Advocates argued that that would lead to an over-representation of white people when states drew up new congressional districts based on the 2020 count.
The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the citizenship question. While the court did not go as far as advocates asserting Trump was trying to bolster white power, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the voting rights rationale “seems to have been contrived.”
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The Trump administration had refused to turn over numerous documents during the legal battles over the citizenship question and subsequent investigation by the House Oversight Committee, citing executive privilege. Ross and Attorney General Bill Barr were both held in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over the papers.
Officials in the Biden administration cut a deal with the Oversight Committee to turn over the information released Wednesday.
“For years, the Trump Administration delayed and obstructed the Oversight Committee’s investigation into the true reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, even after the Supreme Court ruled the Administration’s efforts were illegal,” said committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in releasing a memo on the new information.
“Today’s Committee memo pulls back the curtain on this shameful conduct and shows clearly how the Trump administration secretly tried to manipulate the census for political gain while lying to the public and Congress about their goals,” she said.
A key document in the trove is a memo written by former Commerce Department lawyer James Uthmeier that sought to justify the citizenship question. In early versions of the memo, Uthmeier warned the effort would not pass muster with the Constitution.
“Over two hundred years of precedent, along with substantially convincing historical and textual arguments, suggest that citizenship data likely cannot be used for purposes of apportioning representatives,” the draft said.
The 14th Amendment explicitly orders the counting over every person, including those that cannot vote.
Current champions of the idea include John Eastman, the right-wing lawyer at the center of Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
The warning that the scheme would likely be unconstitutional, as well as other signs about problems with the idea, was removed in later versions of the memo, and substituted with language that suggested the commerce secretary had discretion in such matters.
Uthmeier later admitted in an email to a colleague that he may have been “sugar coating the analysis.”
The new documents also prove that Ross lied when he told Congress repeatedly that it was the Justice Department that sought the citizenship question to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Among the papers was a hand-written note by Uthmeier that accompanied a copy of his white-washed memo that he delivered to the Justice Department in 2017. It points the DOJ toward invoking voting rights as a justification, saying Ross “thinks DOJ would have a legitimate use of data for VRA purposes.”
In releasing the new information, Maloney said Congress should pass her proposed law to bar the Census Bureau from adding any questions that are not rigorously and scientifically vetted first. The Census Bureau generally does that as a matter of practice already, but Maloney’s bill would ensure compliance.