Government & Politics

That citizenship question on the 2020 Census? Kobach says he pitched it to Trump

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach encouraged President Donald Trump to add a question about citizenship status to the U.S. Census during the early weeks of Trump’s presidency.

More than a year later, Trump’s administration has moved to enact that exact policy for the 2020 census.

“I won’t go into exact detail, but I raised the issue with the president shortly after he was inaugurated,” Kobach said Tuesday.

“I wanted to make sure the president was well aware.”

Kobach, a Republican candidate for Kansas governor who is running on a platform focused on immigration, also published a column in January on Breitbart calling for Trump to reinstate the question to the Census.

“It’ll allow our nation to know how many citizens we have. ... Every sovereign nation should know that,” Kobach said, contending that after 1950 the country has had to rely on less accurate estimates about the number of citizens.

The Commerce Department, which administers the Census, noted Monday that the citizenship question was included on almost every census from 1820 to 1950.

Kobach said the question was then moved from the Census' short form to its long form, which is more detailed but has a lower response rate, until 2010, when it was moved to the annual American Community Survey.

Kobach, who advised Trump on immigration during the 2016 campaign and served on his transition team, said he did not know whether he was the first person to discuss the issue with Trump.

“He may have been aware of it. He absolutely was interested in this,” Kobach said.

Returning the question to the short form could affect the apportioning of congressional districts, Kobach said.

He contended that some states, California in particular, have had their “congressional seats inflated by counting illegal aliens.”

Asked whether Texas, a Republican-leaning state on the border, would also have its numbers inflated, Kobach said he was not sure. “There may be some,” he said.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced plans to sue the Trump administration immediately after the announcement of the question's addition to the next Census.

"We're prepared to do what we must to protect California from a deficient census," Becerra said. "Including a citizenship question on the 2020 census is not just a bad idea — it is illegal."

Asked about the California lawsuit, Kobach replied that it “demonstrates you can get elected to attorney general without knowing anything about the law.”

Kobach said that adding the question would give the country more reliable data about the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S.

He also contended that adding the question would give states more accurate data about the number of eligible voters who are registered.

“With actual data, we will know here are the number of citizens over the age of 18,” he said. “…We’ll get a better estimate. We just want to know if a state is lagging behind.”

Kobach spent much of this month in a federal courthouse defending his office against a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged a Kansas law that requires voters to provide proof of citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate, to register to vote.

Kobach argues the policy prevents non-citizens from getting on the voter rolls, but the ACLU contends that the law actually blocks many rightful voters from registering. Kobach said the Census data would not be relevant to the pending case.

“It’s not about me and Kansas. It’s about the nation. It just gives us better numbers,” he said.

Dale Ho, the lead attorney for the ACLU in the pending case, said on Twitter that the “change to the Census is born from the same toxic mix of xenophobia and voter suppression” as Kansas’ proof of citizenship law.

But he also voiced skepticism in Kobach’s role in steering the Trump administration to adopt it, contending that Kobach has a “history of self-aggrandizing puffery.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed Trump’s direct role in adopting the policy during her Tuesday briefing.

“This is something that the Department of Commerce oversees, but it also takes into account suggestions and recommendations from the Department of Justice and others. The Department of Justice certainly played a role in this process,” Huckabee Sanders told reporters.

“The White House supports it, but the decision was made at the department level.”

Ho noted in an email that five former Census bureau directors, who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, “have spoken out strongly against this last-minute, untested change to the Census, because it will drive down responses in immigrant communities.”

He said based on the recent trial, which featured numerous fights about voter data, he is not surprised the Kobach “is so ill-informed about how surveys work and what makes them reliable.”

Kobach appears to believe that a person’s response to the Census question will be accurate, but that same logic does not apply to his thinking on voter registration forms for which he demands additional documents before he accepts a person’s answer to the citizenship question.

His spokeswoman, Samantha Poetter, responded in an email to a follow-up question about the difference between the two forms.

“Because with voter registration you are seeking something and you have to answer one way in order to get it,” Poetter said. “So there is an incentive to give an answer for the outcome you seek. With a census form there is no right answer.”

The Star’s Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3