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Emails show Census Bureau official communicated with GOP operative about citizenship question

The messages reveal a direct link between the government and the man who wanted to provide an advantage to "Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites."

Emails show Census Bureau official communicated with GOP operative about citizenship question
Emails show Census Bureau official communicated with GOP operative about citizenship question. (Photo credit: Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Emails uncovered in a new court filing reveal a direct link between the Census Bureau and the GOP operative who wanted to rig the decennial survey in favor of “Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites.”

The filing came as part of an ongoing legal battle between several groups challenging the Census Bureau’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which could lead to a vast under-count, predominantly impacting black and Latinx individuals who might be afraid to report their status out of fear that their answers could be used for immigration enforcement.

Lawyers from Covington & Burling, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), who submitted the new evidence, said the emails, sent in January 2015, provide the clearest look at the ways in which the government made the decision to include such a question on the census, and “[contradict] the Trump administration’s claims” that it was done “simply to enforce the federal Voting Rights Act.”

“While the Supreme Court has taken up legal claims to remove the Census citizenship question based on violation of the Administrative Procedures Act and the Enumeration clause of the Constitution, there remain very serious questions around the increasingly strong evidence of unconstitutional racial discrimination behind the citizenship question,” Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel, said in a statement Friday evening. “These questions must be authoritatively resolved before the Census moves forward; our Census must be free of the horrible taint of unconstitutional discrimination.”

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The emails in question were sent by Christa Jones, current chief of staff to Ron Jarmin, the bureau’s deputy director, to the late Republican redistricting operative Thomas Hofeller on January 6 and 7, 2015.

On January 6 that year, Jones sent Hofeller an email with a link to the Federal Register notice asking for public comments on changes to census questions. “Public comments highly useful in this context,” she wrote.

In a follow-up email the next day, Jones wrote, “This can also be an opportunity to mention citizenship as well.”

Screenshot of Jones' emails to Hofeller in 2015

Hofeller, seen by Republicans as the main architect behind the country’s most successful gerrymandering efforts, wrote an unpublished study months later that showed how adding a citizenship question to the census “would be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.”

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A citizenship question would also “provoke a high degree of resistance from Democrats and the major minority groups in the nation,” he wrote.

That study was discovered by Hofeller’s estranged daughter, along with a trove of other documents, after he died last year. The documents were cited in a court filing earlier this year.

The discovery, plaintiffs argued, seemed to prove that Hofeller was responsible for the key portion of the draft Justice Department letter that claimed a citizenship question was necessary to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Trump administration pushed back at that time, arguing that Hofeller had no role in adding the citizenship question, and claiming it was impossible to prove any link between Hofeller and the Census Bureau or its parent, the Commerce Department. Government lawyers claimed there was “literally no evidence that [Commerce] Secretary [Wilbur] Ross (or anyone else in the government) was aware of [Hofeller’s] study, its findings, or its theories.”

The newly discovered emails appear to contradict that claim, at least in part. The Census Bureau has so far not commented on the new filings.

Jones’ role in the decision to add a citizenship question is complex. As NPR notes,

In the months leading up to the administration’s March 2018 announcement of the addition of a citizenship question, Jones was advising Jarmin, who was the bureau’s then-acting director. Commerce Department officials who were under pressure from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to get the question on the census relied on Jones as a point of contact.

“Christa was my liaison over there to ensure that we could get a timely response from Census,” Commerce Department official Sahra Park-Su testified during a deposition for the lawsuits. “If she responded, then that was good as — as what Census was going forward with.”

Jones was also responsible for advising Ross on which conservative groups to contact to discuss the citizenship question. Those groups included controversial organizations like the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies.

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Experts say adding a citizenship question to the census imperils already marginalized populations and could lead to some 4 million individuals being left out of the final count. Such an under-count could have severe implications, politically.

“Census data are crucial to allocating seats in Congress, drawing accurate election districts and ensuring equitable distribution of federal funds for a wide range of vital programs,” MALDEF stated this week.

The latest discovery, it claimed, was further proof “members of the administration conspired to deprive racial minorities of their constitutional right to equal representation.”


UPDATE: In an email to ThinkProgress, a Commerce Department spokesperson responded to the newly discovered communications and reiterated the administration’s claim that Hofeller had not influenced the government’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

“Neither Dr. Hofeller nor his views were part of the Secretary’s decision to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 Census,” they wrote. “The Secretary’s reason to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 Census was laid out in his 2018 decision memos. Plaintiffs’ new unproven narrative is as ridiculous as their previous ones. All of Plaintiffs’ conspiracy theories are outlandish and should be disregarded.”