March 20, 2020
WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than 275 civic leaders, non-profit organizations, elected officials, state and local groups Monday unveiled a watchdog coalition pledging to help monitor and protect the confidentiality of 2020 Census data.
The coalition, led by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), The Leadership Conference Education Fund, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, will use their collective expertise, power, and influence to safeguard the strict census data confidentiality requirements, and to assure people that they should participate in the Census and secure resources important for their family and community without worry.
“Heightened distrust in elements of the federal government is a threat to our nation’s ability to secure an accurate Census, which is so critical to our democracy’s next decade,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “This Census data confidentiality protection pledge provides reassurance to all – including hardworking Census Bureau staff themselves — that powerful forces outside of government are working together to protect data confidentiality and the integrity of Census 2020.”
Federal law requires the Census Bureau to protect any personal and household information it collects and bars it from sharing such information with any other government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement, housing authorities, public benefit administrators, or other agencies for 72 years.
“Individual census responses are protected by some of the strictest confidentiality protections in federal law and, as advocates, we know how to help enforce them,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “This coalition of census watchdogs is using the best tools in our collective arsenal — our political influence, our legal expertise, and our dedication to vulnerable communities — to ensure people feel comfortable participating in the 2020 Census. We’ve done it before when we prevented the citizenship question from being added to the 2020 Census. Everyone should know that by law, your information can’t be used against you by ICE, law enforcement, landlords, or public benefits providers. The Census Bureau has a legal responsibility keep the personal data it collects confidential, which it takes very seriously. We are on watch to help ensure no one interferes with that obligation.”
Census data are crucial to allocating seats in Congress, drawing accurate election districts, and ensuring equitable distribution of federal funds for a wide range of vital programs including schools, hospitals, and other social services.
The coalition is working to boost responses among communities that have been historically undercounted by reassuring households that not only are the Census confidentiality protections in law the strongest in the nation, but that the coalition is poised to help enforce them so personal information remains protected from any potential threat of disclosure.
“We continue to hear concerns reverberating through communities of color, particularly the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, about the confidentiality of their information when filling out the 2020 Census but we are here to provide reassurance,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. “For a community that includes undocumented immigrants and individuals in mixed-status households, it is imperative to remind them about the legal protections that will protect their responses to the 2020 Census. We have had to fight for a fair and accurate census before and we will do it again if necessary.”
Children, undocumented immigrants, racial/ethnic minorities and people experiencing homelessness are among the least likely to be counted accurately due in large part to a distrust in government and risk losing their fair share of political power and resources.
“During WWII, the U.S. government used Census data to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans. This was a shocking betrayal of the bureau’s pledge of confidentiality of Census data,” said actor and activist, George Takei whose family was interned during WWII. “This historic violation galvanized citizens who cherish justice and the integrity of the Census, resulting in the strongest, most robust confidentiality laws on our books. I am confident that this breakdown would never happen again. I support this effort by civil rights groups to monitor and protect our private data and confidentiality in the 2020 Census. I have faith in this effort. I understand its importance to me, our community and to the vitality of our diverse nation. I encourage you to fill out the 2020 Census.”
The plan includes working with groups currently operating hotlines to answer any questions about the Census and reporting any issues related to census operations or potential breaches.
Some groups in the coalition have previously challenged the Trump administration’s efforts to unlawfully add a question to the decennial count.
In May 2018, MALDEF and Advancing Justice | AAJC sued the administration and, with others, successfully blocked it from adding a citizenship question to the Census.