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Why is Trump administration focused on non-citizens? House committee subpoenas to find out

WASHINGTON – A Democratic-led House committee voted Tuesday to issue a subpoena demanding Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provide more information about his decision to add a controversial question on citizenship to the 2020 Census.

“The committee is simply trying to determine the real reason Secretary Ross added the citizenship question," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. "The Trump administration is stonewalling."

Democrats and immigrant rights groups allege that the decision was made for political reasons after consultations with the White House. Republicans and administration officials insist the Justice Department simply wants to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities.

Cummings said the documents and testimony requested could help answer the question. “None of these requests is new,'' he said. "They are all items we asked for repeatedly, but the Trump administration refused to produce."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., joins others at a press conference May 10, 2018 criticizing the addition of a question about citizenship to the Census.

The subpoena comes as the citizenship question faces legal challenges. Two federal judges have blocked the question from being added, and the Supreme Court will hear the case April 23.

Census officials are preparing for the 2020 count, which begins next April 1.

The committee voted 23-14, mostly along party lines to approve the subpoena. Michigan Rep. Justin Amash was the only Republican to vote for it.

The decision by Ross last year to add the question has sparked heated debates. Democrats and civil rights groups argue adding the question is an attempt to intimidate people into not participating in the decennial count and could lead to an undercount, particularly of people of color.

Republicans and the administration counter that it’s important to know who is in the country and that adding the question makes sense.

'Just counting heads'

In testy exchanges, including some in which Cummings repeatedly pounded his gavel, committee members argued over the issue.

“We are simply trying to understand who lives in the United States of America and whether they’re citizens," said Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas. “This is just basics. We’re just counting heads.”

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, criticized Democrats for seeking the subpoena, noting that the Commerce Department has submitted thousands of pages of documents and that Ross testified for more than six hours at a committee hearing last month.

“But that’s not good enough,’’ he said. “The Democrats want to interfere with the (Supreme) court case.”

He said the Commerce Department wants to add a “simple” question about citizenship.

“This is wrong,”  he said, adding that the Democratic effort begs the question: “Why don’t Democrats want to know if you’re a citizen of this country or not?’’

Democrats seek documents

Cummings is seeking to subpoena, in particular, a memorandum and note from agency counsel James Uthmeier to John Gore, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department. He also wants Gore testify before the committee.

Gore was the lone witness at a committee hearing last May where Democrats blasted him for not answering questions about the agency’s decision to add the citizenship question. The panel had agreed a week earlier to subpoena Gore after he didn’t show for a hearing that featured several Census Bureau officials.

Gore told the committee at the time he couldn’t answer many questions about the citizenship question in part because of pending lawsuits.

Cummings is also requesting information from 2017 related to the citizenship question, both within the Justice Department and with outside entities, including the White House, the Trump presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Ross asks for more time

In a letter to Cummings Monday, Ross asked the committee not to issue the subpoena and give the department more time to respond to the request.

“The Department respectfully requests that you abstain from considering or issuing a subpoena while our good faith dialogue continues,’’ Ross wrote in the April 1 letter.

Ross said the agency is committed to responding to the panel and has already submitted 11,500 pages of documents and “maintained a candid and accessible line of communication.’’

But he complained the committee only gave the agency one business day to comply and said he “believes that the rush to issue a subpoena is premature.”

Cummings, however, said the panel wants documents without redactions and dismissed the agency's submissions.

“These are just numbers" without substantive information, he said. “We don’t want thousands of pieces of paper.’’

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., holds up  redacted forms at a House Oversight and Reform Committee meeting April 2, 2019 that he said were submitted by the Department of Commerce.

Last month, Ross testified before the committee about his decision to add the question and any political motivation behind it. Ross had testified before Congress that his addition of a citizenship question was done "solely" based on a Justice Department request. He said at the recent hearing he conducted intensive research beforehand because he understood Justice might want a citizenship question.

Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri said Cummings offered Ross the opportunity to “come clean” at that hearing.

Clay said he supports issuing the subpoena, “so we can finally get to the bottom of this.”

Contributing: Alan Gomez