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Census Data HAS Been Misused Before — in WWII and After 9/11

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In big news this week, the Trump Administration announced that it would be adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census — which advocates denounced as a terrible idea for a multitude of reasons.

The Constitution requires that every person living in the U.S. be counted every ten years, regardless of legal status. The official count of citizens and noncitizens alike is used to draw voting districts for Congressional, state, and local representatives, as well as distribute government funds for our schools, roads, hospitals, natural disasters, and more.

An inaccurate census count would undermine the integrity of a wide variety of economic data and statistics that businesses, researchers, and policymakers depend upon, negatively impact undermine democracy, and more.

“Former census directors representing both Republican and Democratic administrations, 60 members of Congress, 161 Republican and Democratic mayors, 19 state attorneys general, more than 170 civil rights organizations, and prominent business leaders” have all objected to the census citizenship question, yet others have wondered what the big deal is. Census data is supposed to be private, and Title 13 of the U.S. Code says private information cannot be published or used against respondents by a government agency or court.

However, the Census Bureau has misused census data before, at least twice, violating its own policy strictly prohibiting the sharing of information:

  • In the 1940s during World War II, government documents confirm the U.S. Census Bureau provided the U.S. Secret Service with names and address of Japanese-Americans. (The Census Bureau denied this for decades). The data, experts say, would have been useful for officials trying to find Japanese-Americans who had eluded internment. President Ford apologized in 1976 for the internment, saying the incarceration of Japanese-Americans was a “setback to fundamental American principles.”
  • Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Census Bureau provided neighborhood data on Arab-Americans to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2002. One set of census information listed cities with more than 1,000 Arab-Americans. The second detailed set provided ZIP-code-level breakdowns of Arab-American populations, sorted by country of origin. Civil liberties group and Arab-American advocacy organizations decried the dangerous breach of public trust, reported The New York Times. The Census Bureau deputy director, Hermann Habermann, claimed the census tabulations of specialized data was legal, as long as they did not identify an individual.

These examples are why Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI) office at the New York University School of Law, told Rewire that individual information should be protected above all else. 

As Michael Fix, Senior Fellow and former president of the MPI, said:

If everyone is afraid, the census becomes a less accurate instrument and the less we know about communities, the worse off they will be because of how federal funds will be allocated and distributed.

Also read:

A Census Question About Citizenship Should Worry You, No Matter Your Immigration Stance, by Juan Escalante (Huffington Post)