Civil rights groups, lawmakers, attorney generals, former Census Bureau directors, former Commerce Department secretaries and actors like Rita Moreno and George Takei said Monday they were forming a coalition to monitor and protect the confidentiality of the 2020 census.
The goals of the coalition of 275 groups and individuals are to monitor and stop any breaches of confidentiality in the data from the 2020 census. Federal law has strong protections against the release of any personal information from the census, but with distrust of the federal government growing over the years, an outside coalition is needed to reassure the public any problems are being monitored, organizers said.
The failed effort by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire also raised suspicions about the confidentiality of the census data among immigrants and minority groups, who may hesitate to participate in the census if they worry their information will be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other federal agencies, organizers said.
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Anyone who feels the confidentiality of their census information has been breached can call four multilingual hotlines. The complaint will be investigated and coalition members will take action, either by publicizing the breach or filing a legal challenge, organizers said.
"I don't anticipate a breach but really the pledge is an effort to reassure the general public who doesn't have an awareness about how strong census privacy laws are," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “There's nothing wrong with having a watchdog on the outside.
Takei, a former star of the original television series, “Star Trek,” noted that during World War Two Census Bureau information helped identify where Japanese-Americans were living. About 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast, including a young Takei and his family, were sent to internment camps.
“I was one of them and I'm mindful of that history," Takei said Monday on a conference call.
The formation of the coalition comes as increasing numbers of U.S. residents have grown aware that the once-a-decade head count of the nation is taking place, with blacks more likely than whites and older people more likely than younger ones to have heard something about the 2020 census, according to a new survey released Monday.
Between early January and early March, those who had seen or heard something about the census grew from half to two-thirds of respondents, the Pew Research Center survey found.
The Pew Research Center conducted two surveys, one in early January and another in late February and early March. In between the two surveys, the U.S. Census Bureau launched a $500 million outreach campaign to convince U.S. residents to participate in the head count, and about half of the money was devoted to a media campaign that will pay for more than 1,000 ads.
The 2020 census will help determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending.
Those who definitely or probably will participate in the 2020 census went from 78% to 80%, and those who are most enthusiastic — saying they definitely will participate in the census — went from 55% to 59% during that time, according to the latest Pew survey.
The head count started in late January in rural, native villages in Alaska, but the rest of the country wasn't able to start answering the questionnaire until the second week of March. The coronavirus crisis pushed back the deadline for finishing the 2020 census from late-July to mid-August and forced the suspension of field operations for a month from mid-March to mid-April.
Of those who have heard something recently about the census, 70% said some of that information came from advertising and 61% said it came from the news. More than a quarter of respondents heard about the census from the social media posts of people they know, the Pew survey said.
The survey indicated that the media blitz is penetrating some racial and ethnic groups more than others. Hispanic respondents were more likely than white or blacks to say that information on the census they saw or heard came from an ad, the news or social media, according to the survey.
The latest Pew survey of 3,456 U.S. adults was conducted from Feb. 25 to March 9, right before fears of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. took off. At the start of that time-frame, the CDC reported the first U.S. patient who had gotten the virus from an unknown origin and the end of that time frame was just two days before President Donald Trump announced he was restricting travel from Europe to the U.S. for 30 days in an effort to slow the virus's spread. The questioning of survey participants also finished more than a week before governors of several states started issuing stay-at-home orders.
Separately, a Census Bureau watchdog warned that a telephone system used to answer the questions of people filling out their census forms wasn't used during a test run of the 2020 census in Rhode Island in 2018. The new, off-the-shelf system for the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation “presents significant risk" because of the lack of time for testing, according to last week's report from the Office of Inspector General.
The Census Bureau said in a response that while the system hasn't undergone testing in a “live, public environment,” it has undergone numerous internal tests and passed each one.
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