Laws Protect Confidentiality of Immigrants’ Information in Census Even Under Trump

(Photo/U.S. Census Bureau/Public Information Office)

Many immigrants are concerned about the confidentiality of the 2020 Census because of the attempt by the Trump administration to insert a question about citizenship into the Census questionnaire. There are strict protections under the Census Act and other Federal laws that will preserve the confidentiality of the information provided. It is illegal for confidential census data to be revealed and there are strict penalties for Federal employees who reveal  confidential information. Census data can only be used for statistical purposes where no individual person can be identified.

There are strict protections for confidentiality in place for the census under Federal law. Only sworn officers and employees of the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau are allowed to examine individual census reports and they cannot reveal any information that could identify a specific individual or establishment. If an officer or employee reveals confidential information they can be charged up to $250,000 in fines and sent to prison for up to 5 years.

Census information is protected for 72 years. Confidential information cannot be used in any lawsuit or administrative proceeding unless an individual consents to their information being revealed. Additionally, this information cannot be obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. In 2010, the Office of Legal Counsel has declared that these protections should be upheld over any other law, including the PATRIOT Act.

There are two exceptions to the confidentiality protections. First, an individual can request their own census data during that time period. Second, under the Federal Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2015 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may access census data only for the purpose of protecting against cyberattacks. This information can only be used for law enforcement and cannot be used for any other purposes.

Everyone should submit a fully completed 2020 Census form. The Census is not only required by the Constitution, but the data is used to determine voting district lines and how Federal funds will be distributed throughout the country. Confidentiality concerns should be alleviated by the protections afforded by federal law. Filling out the census  is in the best interest of our communities.

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