Justice Dept.: Census confidentiality laws trump the Patriot Act
Provisions of the Patriot Act pertaining to information-gathering and -sharing do not override federal confidentiality laws when it comes to the U.S. Census, the Justice Department said this week.
The clarification by government lawyers came at the request of minority lawmakers, who were seeking to allay the fears of constituents about the first national headcount since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a letter sent Wednesday to the leaders of the congressional Asian Pacific, Black and Hispanic caucuses, Assistant Attorney General Ronald H. Weich said, "The long history of congressional enactments protecting [Census] information from such disclosure, as well as the established precedents of the courts and this department, supports the view that if Congress intended to override these protections, it would say so clearly and explicitly."
In this case, federal Census laws trump the Patriot Act, and the agency will keep information obtained during the headcount confidential and away from other departments, Weich said.
Civil rights leaders said the clarification will help them convince minorities that it is safe to participate in the Census.
“As we have been going around doing our outreach to local community leaders -- whether religious leaders or community activists -- many people have been asking whether the Census is confidential," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "The Patriot Act has been passed since the last Census, so what we wanted to do was eliminate any doubt that the Patriot Act has an impact, and it does not.”
But Vargas said minorities are not the only Americans concerned with sharing personal information on Census forms, noting that people may have tax violations or be concerned about sharing information about a recently foreclosed home.
This year's Census questionnaires will have only 10 questions, asking for a person's name, age, gender, race or ethnicity, the number of people in each household and their relationships with each other and whether the occupants rent or own their home. The forms will also ask for a phone number, in case the agency needs to clarify an answer.
The Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department, has mounted a multimillion-dollar advertising and outreach campaign to encourage increased participation among minority groups.
The agency has partnered with thousands of churches and civic organizations across the country to promote participation, convinced Spanish-language broadcasters to write Census-related storylines into popular "telenovelas," and recently paid $3,000 to print Census promotions on Chinese fortune cookies.
In an effort to make the process easier for immigrants, questionnaires will also be available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian, and the agency printed guides on how to complete forms in 59 languages.
Obama administration officials used the Justice Department decision as another opportunity to encourage participation in the Census, which begins later this month when questionnaires are mailed to American residences.
"All United States residents should be fully confident that the individual information they provide on census forms is protected from disclosure by law," said Commerce Department spokesman Nick Kimball.
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