U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross insisted on Thursday that the plan by the Republican Trump administration to revive a citizenship question on the 2020 census was aimed at bolstering the Voting Rights Act, prompting ridicule from Democrats.
He said the proposed question did not ask respondents whether they were in the United States legally, and confidential responses would never be provided to law enforcement officials.
Ross has repeatedly testified that he added the question following a Justice Department request in December 2017.
In his opinion on the citizenship question lawsuits based in NY, however, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman concluded that reasoning was a "sham justification."The judge cited internal documents showing that Ross pressured Commerce Department staff to ask the Justice Department to submit a formal request for the question".
Ross' announcement described citizenship data as necessary for the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and Republicans point to examples about citizenship appearing on past decennial and other census surveys as evidence it is a normal query. "That's what I had in mind".
After acknowledging that he was "a great admirer" of Jefferson and noting that a citizenship question had been included on the Census "in one form or another" since the 1800s, Ross came under fire for the comparison by Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands).
"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. "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".
His assertions were mocked by the majority Democrats on the committee, including chairman Elijah Cummings.
Ross denied that he was hiding any ulterior motives.
"We have done all kinds of things we can think of to make sure we have the best census possible", Ross said. There has not been a question about citizenship status on the short-form census questionnaire since 1950. The census is also used to allocate federal funds.
"That's the extent of the conversation", Ross said.
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.
Republican members were generally satisfied with Ross' actions.
"Obtaining complete and accurate information for use in determining citizen age voting populations to enforce the Voting Rights Act is a legitimate government objective", he said in written comments submitted beforehand.
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. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on that case January 15, ordering the question's removal. "But for some reason, they are focused on this question".
The secretary may submit additional topics or questions if he or she "finds new circumstances exist" that require those additions, but the secretary must provide a report explaining those circumstances.
Two federal judges have declared the move to reinstate the question illegal.
In the main decennial census, the government has not asked about citizenship since 1950, although the question is included on smaller survey's on a fraction of United States populace.