The Hill, April 4, 2018
by James Bovard
The hubbub over the Trump administration’s proposal to ask respondents about citizenship in the 2020 Census is mystifying because the response is so far out of proportion to the White House’s request. But the dispute is obscuring a much greater peril that the Census Bureau poses to Americans.
Admittedly, citizenship questions have been profoundly controversial in the past, as I learned in 1980 while working as a Census taker in southern Illinois. My job was tricky because, as the Washington Post reported, “Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan has urged Americans not to answer most of the Census questions.” That was the only gig I ever had where I reaped free beer for listening to people rail about “America going to hell in a handbasket.”
Census takers in our area were initially told not to count illegal aliens; half way through the tabulation, a supervisor blithely announced that henceforth we should count all such people. That flip-flop guaranteed that the final result would be woefully inaccurate and forever jaundiced me on federal statistics.
Several members of Congress in 1980 sued unsuccessfully to compel the Census Bureau to ask respondents if they were illegal aliens. At the time, a Census Bureau official complained that that question would be like asking: “Do you beat your wife?” The House of Representative even passed a bill to prohibit counting illegal aliens in the apportionment of congressional seats, but that vanished by the wayside.
Regardless of whether the citizenship question is included in the 2020 Census, respondents will be assured that they have nothing to fear because the information they provide will never be used against them. In 2010, the House of Representatives passed a resolution assuring Americans that “the data obtained from the Census are protected under United States privacy laws.”
But the Census Bureau has a long history of betraying respondents. In the early 1940s, the Census brazenly violated federal law by providing key information on 120,000 Japanese Americans so that the Army could round them up for internment camps. The detentions were among the worst civil liberties violations in modern U.S. history.
For more than 60 years, the Census lied about its role in this debacle, even boasting that it had done nothing to betray people who were wrongfully corralled. In 2000, researchers revealed that the Census Bureau had disclosed to the Army how many Japanese-Americans lived on each city block. In 2007, academic investigators proved that the Census gave the Secret Service the names and addresses of all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area during World War II.
The Census Bureau acts as if its role in the Japanese-American internment is irrelevant ancient history. But in 2003-04, it provided the Department of Homeland Security with a massive report on how many people of Arab ancestry live in each ZIP code. As with the Japanese-American reports the Census Bureau compiled in the early 1940s, the information could be broken down to provide a road map to where targeted groups live. But since Army trucks have not pulled up to Arab neighborhoods to load up women, children, and men, the Census has caught almost zero flak.
It isn’t just Washington-based bureaucrats you have to worry about using the data you submitted. Low-income people have been evicted thanks to their honest replies on Census forms. Local governments have used c\Census replies to launch code enforcement crackdowns on houses that have more residents than local laws permit. Such regulations are often designed to prop up property values, not protect citizens — but the Census information can be used in raids regardless. Despite earlier controversies about the use of Census data for enforcement purposes, the Census Bureau boasts that its American Community Survey results are custom-made to “evaluate overcrowding.”
The Census’ vow that survey responses will be kept confidential is as trustworthy as a political campaign promise. Congress can change the law at any point. If the Census Bureau again violates federal law to please The Powers That Be, Census officials will face no peril of prosecution by the Justice Department. And private citizens who are victimized will have no effective legal right of protest (aggrieved Facebook posts don’t count).
It would be best to minimize Census intrusions for all people, but almost no one in Washington favors that. As long as the feds are going to spend $15 billion ($107 per household) on a data roundup in 2020, they may as well seek information about the legal status of immigrants — part of the equal opportunity hassling of everyone in the land.
Regardless of whether a citizenship question is included in the survey, Americans should remember the Census Bureau’s long history of duplicity. And if new Census abuses do occur, we can rest assured that our great grandchildren will finally learn the facts of the matter.
James Bovard is a USA Today columnist and the author of 10 books, including “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty” (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).