US Commerce Secretary denies lying to Congress over 2020 census

©Agence France-Presse

Ross told lawmakers he had no 'nefarious' purpose in seeking to collect citizenship data

Washington (AFP) - US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday denied accusations he lied to Congress about his decision to collect citizenship data in next year's national census.

Ross's denial came shortly before the Supreme Court is due to wade into the controversy, after federal judges blocked him asking about citizenship status in next year's census, ruling that his decision-making process was unlawful.

Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives, accuse Ross of working with White House officials to devise a census question that critics fear will dissuade ethnic minorities from responding and being counted, while trying to hide this motive from Congress.

Census results are used to apportion congressional seats and federal funding across the United States and thus are key to the balance of power.

Ross has repeatedly testified that he added the question following a Justice Department request in December 2017.

But, in a stinging opinion in January, a federal judge called this explanation a "sham," and saying Ross pressured his own staff to ask the Justice Department to request the citizenship question.

"You are complicit in the Trump administration's attempt to suppress the growing political power of the non-white population," Representative Lacy Clay of Missouri said at Thursday's hearing.

"You should in my opinion resign."

Clay cited an internal email from May 2017 -- seven months before the Justice Department request -- in which Ross spoke of "my months-old request that we add a citizenship question."

Ross denied he was behind the Justice Department's request.

"I have never intentionally misled Congress or intentionally said anything incorrect under oath," Ross said.

He said the proposed question did not ask respondents whether they were in the United States legally, and confidential responses would never be provided to law enforcement officials.

"I want to be clear we intend to count as many people as possible," Ross said, noting that he had increased the budget for the census, including a $500 million advertising campaign.

In the main decennial census, the government has not asked about citizenship since 1950, although the question is included on smaller survey's on a fraction of US populace.