ChrisWeigant.com

Census Bureau Doesn't Always Live Up To Its Ideals

[ Posted Wednesday, March 28th, 2018 – 17:20 PDT ]

The Trump administration just announced that it will be adding a citizenship question to the main U.S. Census form that all United States residents will be getting in 2020. Already, several states have sued to block this move, since it could obviously lead to undercounting the actual population. The Justice Department is attempting to claim that the data is necessary to uphold voting rights, but it strains credulity to picture Jeff Sessions being suddenly concerned about upholding federal voting laws, given his history on civil rights. The Census Bureau is trying to put itself on the side of the angels as well, insisting that individual data would never be turned over to law enforcement agencies so that undocumented immigrants could be rounded up. But their hands aren't exactly historically clean either, which is why it's tough to make the case that anyone refusing to answer the citizenship question on their Census form is somehow being overly paranoid.

The Census Bureau has indeed handed over information to federal law enforcement agencies in at least two instances. In both cases, this was fully legal, due to emergency wartime laws which overruled any normal legal considerations of privacy and secrecy. In the 1940s, Census data was used in to aid in identifying people of Japanese ancestry so they could be rounded up and interned in concentration camps. Much more recently, in the wake of 9/11, the Patriot Act allowed the Census Bureau to turn over data on Arab-Americans to law enforcement agencies. In neither case did the Census Bureau live up to the ideals they are professing now, of steadfastly protecting information they collect so it can't be used to target individual populations -- even when the population is targeted for nothing more than their race.

The Census Bureau used to strongly argue that they hadn't turned over individual data even back in World War II, merely aggregate geographical or "neighborhood" data. Part of what the Census Bureau does is to provide all kinds of statistics to the rest of the government on many different categories of data, but all of this publicly-released information is stripped of all individual identification. So people can accurately find out things such as what the average income is for a certain House member's district, or what ZIP code has the highest average level of education. This is fairly innocuous data, since it doesn't point to any particular individual. But even these aggregate slices can be very small -- a single city block, for example.

For many decades, the Census Bureau insisted that this was all they had offered up for Japanese-Americans during the 1940s. They swore they had only released neighborhood data, and not individual data during the internment period. It took until 2007 for them to be proven wrong, when some intrepid researchers uncovered hard evidence that the Census Bureau had indeed turned over individual names to law enforcement agencies. These shreds of hard evidence were not found within the Census Bureau's own records, but rather in the archives of the Commerce Department, which was tasked under the Second War Powers Act of 1942 with approving such data requests (since the Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department). This means that the Census Bureau's records are -- obviously -- incomplete on the subject of how much they aided federal law enforcement in rounding up people of Japanese ancestry (including United States citizens). Were the original records destroyed after the war in an effort to cover up the Bureau's shameful involvement, or was there a more benign explanation (such as records being innocently lost or thrown out)? That question will likely never be answered either way, at this point. Also likely never to be known is the full extent of the Census Bureau's involvement in the internment effort at large.

But the fact remains that the Census Bureau lied about their history of releasing individual data to law enforcement, for many decades. It wasn't until the smoking gun was discovered ten years ago that anyone at the Census Bureau would admit that they had done so. For over 60 years, their involvement was a closely-held secret.

Currently, the Census Bureau swears up and down that the information it released to law enforcement after 9/11 was only aggregated geographically, by ZIP code. They claim that this information was already in the public domain, and therefore they did nothing wrong. The Patriot Act absolves them of doing anything illegal, no matter what the truth of their involvement, in the same way the Second War Powers Act covered their actions in World War II.

But given their previous history, it's hard not to wonder if -- 50 or 60 years in the future -- the American public will find out that the Census Bureau has been lying once again about exactly how detailed the information they turned over after 9/11 actually was.

This is why the fear that checking a box on a Census Form in 2020 that says "not a legal citizen" might result in ICE agents eventually showing up at the door is a very real one for a whole lot of people. The Census Bureau obviously only follows its lofty ideals of privacy and data anonymity very selectively. Given a national emergency, they throw these ideals straight out the window, and willingly assist in rounding up whomever the feds are currently targeting. And, with President Trump in charge, it's not exactly a stretch of the imagination to see such an "emergency" being declared over illegal immigration.

The Census is directed to count "persons" physically within the United States. Elsewhere in the Constitution, the word "citizen" is used to differentiate legal citizens from other people who happen to be present in the country, so this was a very conscious word choice of the Founders. They wanted everyone counted accurately (although there was that whole embarrassing "three fifths of a Person" clause that had to be updated after the end of slavery), so that the rest of the government would know how many people (not just citizens) lived here.

Including a citizenship question on the main form that everyone gets in the mail is a pretty transparent attempt to frighten undocumented immigrants from not filling out the form at all, for fears the information could come back to haunt them later. This fear is not unjustified, no matter how pious the Justice Department or the Census Bureau currently sounds in their promises to never, ever use such data for law enforcement purposes. Because history says otherwise.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

10 Comments on “Census Bureau Doesn't Always Live Up To Its Ideals”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    Blotus and his white supremacist co-conspirators will go absolutely as far as they can get away with to intimidate non-white people and, when possible, to remove them. Just one more reason he, and his enabling disgrace of a party need to go down with him.

  2. [2] 
    Kick wrote:

    Bell Visuals tonight at Trump International Hotel

    https://twitter.com/bellvisuals/status/979153500734218243

    *LOL*

  3. [3] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Kick,

    Love Bell’s sense of style!

  4. [4] 
    lharvey16 wrote:

    Though the apocryphal story of the Danes all wearing the star of David to shield the jews in WW2 is untrue, the concept is sound. Everyone opposed to the citizenship question on the census on grounds it is inappropriate should just not answer the citizenship question.

  5. [5] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    One has to truly marvel at the sheer scope and variety of voter suppression efforts deployed by the GOP, year after year.

    This one though, is one of the oldest tricks in the book: intimidate a minority population to the point of paranoia, then ask that same community to help make a list that can be used for further intimidation.

    Trump didn't even bother waiting for some sort of 'Krystalnacht' type event - some outrage that would be used as an excuse for mass deportation and harassment - because his excuse for doing so was embodied by the very first assertion that he made as a candidate: that Mexican illegals are "rapists and murderers (and sometimes, good people)".

    The truly sad part of all this is that if immigrants from south of the border had entered the country and then started voting reliably republican (like the Cubans did), none of this would be happening.

    Bush, I think, once had a brief opportunity to shepherd a sizeable portion of the hispanic community into the republican fold by playing the 'cultural values' card, but was overridden by nativists in his own party.

    But nowadays, whenever Trump says "illegal immigrants" he might as well be saying, "Juden", because the distinction between the two in the minds of his followers isn't very much.

  6. [6] 
    Paula wrote:

    [4] Balthasar: "But nowadays, whenever Trump says "illegal immigrants" he might as well be saying, "Juden", because the distinction between the two in the minds of his followers isn't very much."

    Yep.

  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @balthasar,

    that's offensive, and not entirely true. almost half the country voted for the guy, and there aren't THAT many nazis in the whole world, much less the united states. i personally think it was an incredibly poor decision, but the people who made it ought not be painted with such a broad and godwin-esque brush.

    JL

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @LHarvey,

    good idea!

    JL

  9. [9] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    JL [7] (I) personally think[voting for Trump] was an incredibly poor decision, but the people who made it ought not be painted with such a broad and godwin-esque brush.

    Okay, but they're hardly innocent lambs, either. Most knew perfectly well what Trump stood for when they voted for him, and, if the polls are to be believed, most of them are just fine with it now.

    So I'd like to settle for, "Wow, that was stupid", too, but just can't. There was a malicious undertone to the Trump vote that I can't shake. Norman Lear called Trump, "the extended middle finger of the American Right", and subsequent examples, like Tucker Carlson's assertion that he likes to fill his water glass 'with the tears of liberals', and Trump's own decision to fill his cabinet with secretaries dedicated to dismantling their own departments, including (but not limited to) vital services like the EPA and education, have convinced me that this is less like a political debate and more like nearly half the population waging war by a thousand cuts against the other half.

    This coming November (only 7 months away now), millions of Americans will go to the polls, and in many cases, all that they'll know about the candidates will be that some are Democrats, and some are Republicans.

    So I'd like it to be clear: a 'republican' vote is a vote for continuing the Trump agenda, in all its profane ghastliness. Those who cast those votes should have to answer for the consequences, and not be given a pass because they didn't realize that it also means supporting advocates of torture, war, pollution, corporate crime and midnight round-ups.

  10. [10] 
    Paula wrote:

    [9] Balthasar:

    "So I'd like it to be clear: a 'republican' vote is a vote for continuing the Trump agenda, in all its profane ghastliness. Those who cast those votes should have to answer for the consequences, and not be given a pass because they didn't realize that it also means supporting advocates of torture, war, pollution, corporate crime and midnight round-ups."

    Yep.

    "There was a malicious undertone to the Trump vote that I can't shake."

    Double-yep.

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