The Censusgate scandal just took a shocking new twist, as a newly disclosed Department of Justice memo revealed that the Trump administration is considering sharing census responses with law enforcement, including ICE.
This would, in short, weaponize the census.
But in a June 12 email, a DOJ official told Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore that “I don’t think we want to say too much” about the confidentiality of census responses in case the issues “come up later for renewed debate.”
Until this email was released, no one knew there was any such “debate.”
The email surfaced in a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s proposal to add a citizenship question to the census.
Critics (including this writer) had railed against the proposal, arguing that it was meant to discourage undocumented immigrants and their relatives from answering the census. That, in turn, would lead to decreased representation in Congress and decreased funding for social services in areas with large Latino populations.
Now, it turns out that the motive may have been even more overt: to weaponize the census for ICE’s deportations of ‘illegal’ immigrants.
Already, the citizenship question had led to a scandal. In March, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, testified that the Department of Justice asked him to make the change so that they could better enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Turns out, that was a lie. In fact, Ross had asked DOJ send the letter to justify the policy change, and the real sources of the proposal were White House advisers Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach. (Ross also lied under oath about meeting Bannon and Kobach.) The claims about the Voting Rights Act were just a pretext—a ruse.
Now, we know the citizenship question was cooked up not only to undercount and underserve Latino Americans, but to turn non-citizens over to ICE. Or at least, that “debate” on that question was underway.
The June 12 email was disclosed as part of the ongoing litigation regarding the citizenship question. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the lawsuit can proceed, at least for now, and that John Gore—but not Wilbur Ross—could be deposed as part of it. It will hear the entire case on February 19, 2019.
Complicating matters is the identity of the DOJ official who wrote the letter, Ben Aguiñaga.
As it happens, Aguiñaga has since left DOJ and is now clerking for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Alito has not indicated whether he will recuse himself from the case, now that his own clerk is a key part of it. Alito is a reliably conservative vote on the court, and a recusal could change the outcome of the case.
Aguiñaga wrote the email to Gore because, at the time, California Democrat Jimmy Gomez had asked if DOJ stood by its 2010 position that census confidentiality was sacrosanct, and could not be violated even to fulfill the PATRIOT Act.
The eventual response was, as Aguiñaga counselled, vague and noncommittal. Rather than answer Yes or No to Gomez’s question, DOJ replied that “the Department is committed to abiding by all laws protecting the confidentiality and nondisclosure of such responses.”
In other words, they refused to answer. “Abiding by all laws” is what lawyers call “weasel words.” Rep. Gomez’s question was about what the laws mean, not whether DOJ will abide by them. And DOJ pointedly refused to answer.
Indeed, as noted by Hansi Lo Wang, the NPR reporter who first reported on the emails, DOJ refused to even answer more pointed questions about whether there were legal provisions that might compel the Census Bureau to share census responses with law enforcement.
The census is normally a somewhat dry affair, but #Censusgate has been one shocker after another.
Census watchdog groups were shocked when Secretary Ross announced his decision in March, 2018. It’s been estimated that the change would undercount up to 11 million people, and it’s been opposed by a bipartisan array of organizations.
Those organizations were even more shocked when it was revealed that the “fact-finding meetings” Ross had held with them had been a sham, since his mind had already been made up.
“We were—to put it mildly—totally dismayed by his actions in March 2018,” Phil Sparks, co-director of the non-partisan Census Project, told The Daily Beast, “but also confounded and confused by his misleading statements to stakeholders a year earlier when he initiated the process.”
Then came the shock that Ross had asked for the sham DOJ letter to hide the real source of the change.
And then the shock that that source was Kris Kobach, a leading architect of voter suppression. And the shock of Ross lying under oath.
And now comes the shock that the Trump administration is apparently seeking to weaponize the census, undermining its integrity.
The biggest surprises may be yet to come, however, as House Democrats have promised to hold hearings both on the citizenship question and on the scandal, perjury, and cover-up surrounding it. Trump, however, is fundraising on the issue, blatantly undermining the claim that the question is purely about enforcing the Voting Rights Act.
Censusgate is about to go prime time.