Census Fear: Why Some U.S. Residents Fear Being Counted : Code Switch Right now, the U.S. Census Bureau is trying to count every single person living in the country. It's a complex undertaking with enormous stakes. But some people are very afraid of how that information will be used by the government — especially given how it's been misused in the past. The first in our series about who counts in 2020.
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Who Counts In 2020?

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Who Counts In 2020?

Who Counts In 2020?

Who Counts In 2020?

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Chelsea Beck/NPR
The Census bureau challenges, and in some ways, helps define, how Americans of all stripes identify.
Chelsea Beck/NPR

Public service announcements urging U.S. residents to answer the census are everywhere right now. Whether it's a Muppet or Cardi B, the same message runs through each: The census gives the government a clear picture of who we are and what we need. It's critical for planning everything from new highways, to new hospitals, to new schools.

And boosting outreach to black and brown communities has been a major component of the Census Bureau's efforts this time around; Latinx and black residents have long been some of the most undercounted populations, and their communities suffer for that, as Cardi B pointed out. "We can't let this happen again," the rapper said. "¡Mi gente, presente!"

One message most census ads include is the assurance of confidentiality. The information respondents give to the census can only be used for statistical purposes. Those protections have held strong—except during World War II, when they weren't. And that one time, more than 70 years ago, has haunted census efforts to achieve their much-desired, and constitutionally required, full and complete count.

In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of people deemed to be a threat to the national security of the United States. The country was still reeling from the bombing attack by the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii, and anti-Japanese sentiment was at a fever pitch. The government wanted to remove what it perceived as a possible threat by people of Japanese ancestry who, they feared, could have divided loyalties.

So E.O. 9066 became law, giving the U.S. military the ability to designate any part of the county eligible for exclusion orders, and remove people from that area. And the Army knew where to find these families thanks to data from the 1940 census, according to Tom Ikeda, executive director of the Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, which collects oral histories of Japanese Americans from the World War II era, especially camp inmates.

Using the census's information on where people of Japanese ancestry lived, the Army was able to track down families, according to research done by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Margo Anderson and Fordham University professor William Seltzer. "They were able to do this very quickly," Ikeda says. "And that was with the assistance of the census when that information should not have been used in this manner."

But at the time, the sharing of information technically was legal under U.S. law. The Second War Powers Act, passed fewer than two weeks after Pearl Harbor, in part allowed the Census Bureau to share data to be used "for use in connection with the conduct of the war." This policy nullified long-standing precedent for the census; until then, the federal government had assured the public that information collected for the census could not be used against anyone or used for law enforcement.

As a result of the data's release, people of Japanese ancestry—including Ikeda's parents and grandparents—were removed from their neighborhoods and put in detention centers. They were America's version of concentration camps—not death camps like Auschwitz, but places of incarceration in remote locations, ringed by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards.

The kind of data sharing that enabled the wrongful incarceration of some 120,000 people of Japanese descent is illegal today. Lawmakers ultimately allowed the Second War Powers Act to expire in 1947, and it's the bureau's policy now that the public cannot access census information identifying individuals until 72 years after its was first amassed. That kind of information collected for the 2020 census, for instance, won't be available until 2092.

People whose job it is to encourage their communities to answer the census want them to receive their fair share of resources and representation, so they spend time emphasizing the information collected by the census is safe. "There are very strong—as strong as they have ever been in our history—federal laws that protect the confidentiality of all household data for 72 years," says Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, referencing "very strong criminal and financial penalties" for any violation. Given that, Saenz feels comfortable urging his Latinx constituents to count every member of their households.

Michael Cook, the Chief Public Information Officer for the Census Bureau, cites the fact that the information that households provide to the census can't be shared with anyone outside of the bureau. "Even everybody in the bureau can't see it," he says—just people who are actively processing the information. The data that is processed is released in an aggregate form—there's no individual identification. As Cook says, "information comes in, statistics flow out."

Tom Ikeda agrees that census information is much more secure now than during World War II. He also understands that countries often take extraordinary measures to protect themselves from threats real or perceived during, say, a war. But he also is concerned that these extraordinary times might create opportunities to change, modify or even eliminate confidentiality protections.

"Even though laws can say something today, when our country is under duress, like a war, or this coronavirus for instance," Ikeda says, "the country can actually change those laws."

He says that his community has to band together with others to remain vigilant when vulnerable populations are threatened, and cites multicultural pushback on the citizenship question the Trump administration tried and failed to get included in the 2020 census. "This could "potentially be a dangerous question," Ikeda insisted. "Like when we see the government sometimes targeting immigrants."

Even though the citizenship question didn't make it onto the 2020 census, the fact that it had been a real possibility was enough to make some people wary, Ikeda says. Given his own community's history with the census, he understands their concern.

But in the end, Ikeda feels that the benefits communities can receive from census information are important. "I wholeheartedly encourage and support people to be part of the census, especially communities of color and immigrant communities, to really participate."

As the Census Bureau would say, being counted helps shape each individual's future—and the entire nation's, too. Or, as Cardi B would put it: "Mi gente, presente."