Concerns with Data Collection
How has the census historically been used for partisan gain?
United States census is supposed to make sure our government accurately represents our communities. However, history tells us this process can be weaponized for partisan gain. By undercounting people of color, particularly people of African descent, Latinxs and Native Americans have had their voices in government diminished.
Beginning with the first census in 1790, political power was intertwined with the Census and communities of color were deliberately under-counted. In 1790, in order to obtain more political power in the House of Representatives, rural southerners demanded enslaved Africans be counted in the survey, while urban northerners feared their political power would be significantly reduced and diluted. As a flawed compromise and in complete disregard of their humanity, for more than 75 years, enslaved Africans were counted as only three-fifths of a human being for the purposes of Congressional representation and taxation. And for nearly 80 years, Native Americans were completely excluded from the census.
Eventually, the census grew to be more detailed and slightly more inclusive and it became the mission of the census to “count everyone once, only once and in the right place”.
Today, many right wing operatives are attempting to use the census to continue to the tradition of silencing the voices of communities of color. The administration failed in adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census but is still attempting to wipe millions from political representation by collecting citizenship data from administrative sources to then be used in the redistricting process. Thomas Hofeller, the GOP gerrymandering mastermind, has theorized that redistricting based on the citizen-age voting population would create a structural advantage for “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites”.
TAKEAWAY: An accurate census is the basis of fair elections. The effort to under count communities of color in the census is an effort to suppress their votes and return to
What are the concerns with citizenship tabulations at the census block level?
There are two primary concerns that advocates and data scientists have with creating citizenship tabulations at the census block level.
First, is privacy: The census is meant to summarize group demographics and protect individuals’ privacy. The smaller the group, the easier it is to identify the people who make up these groups. In 2016, the Census Bureau conducted a study that found that even after personally
identifiable information was removed from census responses, data experts were able to manipulate the data so that individuals or households could be identified by an exact match for fifty percent of people and with “at most one mistake” for ninety percent of people. The bureau is trying to solve this issue of reconstruction with new privacy procedure called differential privacy. However, it is unclear whether this will entirely prevent the match of census data with personally identifiable information. Ensuring that personally identifiable information is confidential is especially important when data such as citizenship is included. Although it is a violation of the Census Act to manipulate census data to identify an individual or to use it for law enforcement, there is a real fear of the consequences of unprotected census data, particularly among immigrant communities of color.
Second, is citizen voting age population (CVAP) redistricting: Politicians who want to manipulate redistricting by excluding noncitizens and anyone under the age of eighteen need data in order to effectively draw gerrymandered maps that can withstand legal challenges. The citizenship data collected and made compatible with the redistricting file sent to states pursuant to the Census Bureau’s directive may provide the necessary quality of data to draw legally sufficient maps. The collection and inclusion of this data is part of a long term strategy by some Republicans to solidify partisan power and exclude people living in the U.S. who are not U.S. citizens and minors from representation.
This would be a major blow to our voting rights and representation in government. Allowing unreliable citizenship data to play a role in redistricting would boost the number of representatives that less diverse communities receive while diminishing the representation of urban, immigrant-friendly areas of equal population. Lawmakers in Texas, Arizona, Missouri and Nebraska have already said that they would consider making use of the citizenship data for redistricting purposes if it became available.
TAKEAWAY: Losing representation means losing a voice in important conversations about resources and policy. Places with more children, immigrants and people of color could hear their voices silenced.
How could the current anti-immigrant environment affect the census and vice versa?
According to prevailing research, heightened immigration enforcement would lead to lower political participation among Latinx and immigrant communities because of the intimidating effect. Though almost all jurisdictions require people to be citizens in order to vote in elections, people who have personal relationships with noncitizens are less likely to interact with government, including participating in the census or in elections. People with unstable immigration statuses are less likely to fill out the census questionnaire because they are less likely to trust the government.10
In a 1995 ethnographic study, one of the respondents had legal citizenship as a student but feared participating in the census because she believed the information could be used to track her down in the future if she lost that legal status. Mixed-status households — households composed of members with different citizenship or immigration statuses (e.g., undocumented immigrants, citizens, legal residents) — are likely to avoid contact with governmental institutions when they suspect it is not safe to do so.11
Heightened “immigration policing” erodes trust in public institutions and forces immigrant communities, including U.S.-born Latinxs who have immigrant parents or feel connected to the immigrant community, to be very selective in deciding when, where and how they engage with public institutions.12 This includes interactions with vital public institutions, such as those involving health care, law enforcement and education.13
While the debate around the inclusion of citizenship data in 2020 may have increased communities’ concern that the data could heighten immigration enforcement in the future, the confidentiality protections currently in place prevent these concerns from becoming reality.
Has census data ever been used to target groups of people by the government?
Census data on race and ethnicity was used to aid in Japanese Internment during World War II and was used again in the 2000s to identify geographies with large Arab ancestry populations under the George W. Bush administration. These data uses were legal at the time of both instances. Notably, confidentiality safeguards have now been adopted to prevent similar census data use in the future, and penalties for this misuse are prohibitively high.14
During World War II, the Department of War coordinated Japanese American internment efforts15 in California, Oregon and Washington using Census Bureau data. The Second War Powers Act of 1942 temporarily lifted data protections that barred the bureau from revealing data linked to specific individuals. The bureau initially admitted to sharing only aggregated population totals so that the Department of War could identify localities to target for its internment efforts. Research later revealed that the bureau also shared personal records for residents of Washington, D.C., who reported Japanese ancestry on the decennial census. This instance of data sharing was legal at the time that it occurred.
In 2004, it was revealed that the Census Bureau shared aggregated totals on Arab ancestry with the Department of Homeland Security. Special tabulations were prepared for law enforcement on Arab Americans from the 2000 decennial census. This action was within the Census Bureau’s authority at the time. One source contains special tabulations on larger cities with over a thousand residents who reported their Arab ancestry in 2000. The other source used ZIP-code-level tabulations in which Arab ancestry was broken down into categories of “Egyptian,” “Iraqi,” “Jordanian,” “Lebanese,” “Moroccan,” “Palestinian,” “Syrian,” “Arab/Arabic” and “Other Arab.” These tabulations were compiled using the responses from the census long-form, which goes to only a sample of census respondents, so tabulations at lower levels of census geography were not necessarily representative of population totals. Requests for special tabulations on sensitive populations made by federal, state or local law enforcement
and intelligence agencies using Title 13 of the U.S. Code (or Census Act) protected data now require prior approval from the appropriate associate director of the government agency.
Under confidentiality protections today, these uses would be deemed illegal, and there would be legal penalties for these violations. There is currently no credible reason to suspect that similar data sharing will happen with the 2020 decennial census data under our current laws, but such violations would face criminal sanctions.
TAKEAWAY: Using census citizenship data for redistricting is an example of legalized, structural discrimination. Using that data for immigration enforcement, however, is illegal.
(Find more information on the census data sharing of Arab-ancestry respondents and Japanese American respondents, and on census privacy and confidentiality protections at the hyperlinks.)