3/25/2019 — 

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) led a group of 15 senators in calling on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to follow the law and protect the confidentiality of responses collected through the 2020 census. The letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr follows reports about Trump Administration officials discussing the possibility of violating the confidentiality of information collected during the decennial census.

“With the start of peak census operations only 11 months away, we urge you to confirm that the Justice Department and all of its employees will uphold the airtight confidentiality protections for data collected in the census under current law,” the senators wrote.  “It is of utmost importance that the 2020 Census—a constitutionally mandated activity—be conducted in a full, fair, and accurate manner to count all persons in our country.  Any attempt by the Justice or Commerce Departments to diminish the count of particular communities—even indirectly, through actions that agency officials reasonably should know will increase fear that census responses could be used to harm people or their families—would be in contravention of the U.S. Constitution.”

In their letter to Barr, the senators highlight current laws that clearly protect the confidentiality of data collected through the census.  The senators also underscore the harm that reports of illegal data sharing can cause to participation in the census. 

Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross broke the law by adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.  The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled arguments on April 23 to determine whether asking about citizenship would violate the Constitution’s call for a once-a-decade count of all people living in the United States.

In addition to Reed and Schatz, the letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tom Udall (D-NM), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Reed and Schatz also teamed up last month to reintroduce the Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy Act.  This bill would help protect the accuracy of the 2020 census and ensure any proposed changes to the count are properly studied, researched, and tested.

The full text of the letter follows:

Dear Attorney General Barr:

We write to express our deep concerns with documents suggesting that the Justice Department discussed the possibility of violating the confidentiality of information collected during the decennial census.   With the start of peak census operations only 11 months away, we urge you to confirm that the Justice Department and all of its employees will uphold the airtight confidentiality protections for data collected in the census under current law. 

The Census Act explicitly prevents the Commerce Department and any of its bureaus or agencies from sharing personally identifiable information collected in the census with any external entity or individual.  However, court filings revealed a willingness by staff in the Justice Department to leave open the possibility that the Department would reevaluate an existing legal opinion that no provision within the USA PATRIOT Act could be used to compel the Commerce Secretary to release confidential census information to other federal entities.

Following these reports, U.S. senators sent a letter to Assistant Attorney General Eric Drieband urging the Department to publically reiterate its commitment to existing law governing census data confidentiality.   The Department did not respond to the request.

Even consideration of information sharing between the Commerce Department and, for example, the Justice Department or Immigration and Customs Enforcement will have a chilling effect on participation in the 2020 Census.  A national study commissioned by the Census Bureau indicated that a last-minute, untested citizenship question “may be a major barrier” to participation, with respondents citing a distrust in the federal government’s commitment to maintaining the confidentiality of census data.

It is of utmost importance that the 2020 Census—a constitutionally mandated activity—be conducted in a full, fair, and accurate manner to count all persons in our country.  Any attempt by the Justice or Commerce Departments to diminish the count of particular communities—even indirectly, through actions that agency officials reasonably should know will increase fear that census responses could be used to harm people or their families—would be in contravention of the U.S. Constitution.

Thank you for your attention to this matter, and we look forward to your response.

Sincerely,