‘It’s not a novel question.’ Ross unconcerned by impact of census citizenship question

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For all the controversy surrounding the last-minute addition of a citizenship question on 2020 census forms, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says he’s unconvinced the question will impact response rates.

“It’s not a novel question. It’s been asked every year on the American Community Survey in the exact same form that we’re planning to do” in the 2020 count, Ross said Monday at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington.

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While the decennial census hasn’t included a citizenship question since 1950, the question does still appear on the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which goes out to a fraction of the households that receive the full census every 10 years.

The ACS asks respondents for more detailed information than the decennial count, including employment information, level of education, veterans status and whether they own or rent their homes.

“Sixty-one million families have already been exposed to the question and the sky has not fallen, so I don’t think the sky will fall when we add it to the census itself in 2020,” Ross said.

In addition, Ross said the Census Bureau will list the citizenship question at the bottom of the 2020 count form.

“Someone who, for whatever reason, feels uncomfortable with that question, at least they can deal easily with the questions with which they’re not uncomfortable,” he said.

In Providence County, Rhode Island, the Census Bureau continues with its one and only dress rehearsal for the 2020 count.

Ron Jarmin, the acting director of the Census Bureau, told House lawmakers last Tuesday that 56 percent of households in the field test didn’t fill out a questionnaire. The forms used in the Providence field test do not list the citizenship question.

Last week, the Census Bureau sent out about 900 enumerators to knock on doors and gather information from households that have yet to respond to the form.

“We’re doing everything we can to maximize participation in the census,” Ross said, adding that the bureau will spend more than $500 million on advertising with community groups.

The messaging, he said, will seek to clarify that, under federal law, the Census Bureau can only use its data for statistical purposes, and cannot turn its information over to agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“There is no risk that their data will be used for immigration or any other purpose other than compiling regular census statistics. That law has been in effect for a couple of decades. There has never been a violation of it, and I don’t think there will be,” Ross said.

Census Bureau employees with access to decennial count information are bound by a lifelong oath to maintain the confidentiality of personal data. Under federal law, employees who breach that agreement risk a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of up to $250,000.

“People do not need to worry that their privacy will be abused by the Census,” Ross said.

The Department of Homeland Security also provided cybersecurity support to the Census Bureau to protect against outside threats.

“We also are taking extreme measures for cybersecurity, so that we can try to protect, as best one can, against intrusions,” Ross said.

Ross: ‘Very strong confidence’ in career leadership

Ross told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week that he had submitted to the White House the name of his preferred pick to serve as the permanent Census Bureau director.

However, Ross declined to provide any further details about his recommendation.

“You’ll know the name if and when the White House approves it and the formal process,” Ross said, adding that he didn’t have a timetable of when that process would roll out.

The Census Bureau has lacked a permanent director for nearly a year, and also lacks a permanent deputy director.

John Thompson, the last permanent Census Bureau director, stepped down last June.

However, Ross said he has “very strong confidence” in Jarmin and Acting Deputy Director Enrique Lamas, both career employees who have served the agency for decades.

“I think they’re doing an excellent job, and it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if they were there for quite a while,” Ross said.

Last week, John Gore, the current acting deputy assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, was slated to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, but didn’t show up.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, ProPublica identified Gore as the DoJ official who reached out to the Census Bureau to add the citizenship question to the 2020 questionnaire.

However, Gore is slated to appear before the committee on Friday, May 18.

Commerce takes fresh look at ZTE

On the orders of President Donald Trump, Ross says his agency is revisiting sanctions on Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE, a company that some House lawmakers would like to see banned from agency systems.

Last month, the Commerce Department banned ZTE from buying parts from U.S. companies for seven years, after the agency found ZTE had violated U.S. sanctions against North Korea and Iran.

“ZTE did do some inappropriate things, they’ve admitted to that. The question is, are there alternatives remedies to the one that we had originally put forward? That’s the area we’ll be exploring very, very promptly,” Ross said.

In a 2012 report, the House Intelligence Committee recommended agencies avoid using products from ZTE or Huwei, another leading Chinese telecoms company, after lawmakers cited security and cyber espionage concerns.

“U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE equipment, including component parts,” the report stated. “Similarly, government contractors – particularly those working on contracts for sensitive U.S. programs – should exclude ZTE or Huawei equipment in their systems.”

In January, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) introduced a bill that would prohibit federal agencies from contracting with either ZTE or Huawei.

“I have great respect for our national security agencies and our national intelligence agencies,” Ross said. “The president, I, and the rest of the cabinet get very detailed briefings every day, and so I can assure you we know even more about the situation than the leaks would let on.”