WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic lawmakers want Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to clarify where a citizenship question on the 2020 census originated after newly released documents show he was seeking such a question early in Donald Trump's presidency.

The Trump administration's decision to ask people about their citizenship has set off worries among Democrats that immigrants will dodge the survey altogether, diluting political representation for states that tend to vote Democratic and robbing many communities of federal dollars.

The administration announced in late March that it was including the question to improve the data the Justice Department needed for enforcing voting rights laws.

Just days before the announcement, Ross told lawmakers, "The Department of Justice, as you know, initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question."

However, records from a lawsuit filed by more than a dozen states and big cities included a heavily redacted message from Ross nearly 11 months earlier saying: "I am mystified why nothing have been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?"

Earl Comstock, director of the Commerce Department's office of policy and strategic planning, explained to Ross, "We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question, and we have the court cases to illustrate that DOJ has a legitimate need for the question to be included."

Following the administration's decision, more than a dozen states, including New York, Connecticut and Illinois, filed a lawsuit that alleges the inclusion of the question would fatally undermine the accuracy of the count and thus harm their constituents.

The records with the statements from Ross and Comstock were released as part of that lawsuit. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood led the effort to have the records released.

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York said the exchanges between Ross and Comstock, first reported by National Public Radio, "make it clear that voting rights enforcement was nothing more than a manufactured ruse to justify adding a citizenship question and that the Secretary lied to Congress when he said it was DOJ that 'initiated the request.'"

Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Cory Booker of New Jersey said that in light of the emails: "Secretary Ross must come before Congress to clarify the testimony he gave under oath. Who initiated the request for the citizenship question and why? The American people deserve to know the truth."

A Commerce Department spokesman said in response to a question from The Associated Press that "executive branch officials discussing important issues prior to formulating policy is evidence of good government, and the Secretary's previous testimony before Congress is consistent with that fact."

The spokesman said nothing in the court-ordered records changes "the sound rationale" Ross cited in March.