Trump administration officials have privately considered the possibility of allowing law enforcement to access census information — which would be a clear violation of federal law. The discussion took place in a June 12 email between Justice Department officials. That email was disclosed in one of the legal challenges to the Trump administration’s controversial bid to add a new citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
The email has raised alarm about the Trump administration’s commitment to the confidentiality of census data, in spite of laws that strictly prohibit the government from sharing that data or from using it for law-enforcement purposes. These privacy questions come on top of existing concerns that adding a citizenship question to the census would significantly limit participation – especially among undocumented people, who worry their responses could be used against them. Reduced participation would severely compromise the accuracy of the census.
Sharing Census data is illegal
Not only would altering census confidentiality protocols affect participation, the DOJ does not actually have the authority to change the rules, according to Thomas Wolf, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“The Census Act makes it absolutely clear that individual census responses cannot leave the Commerce Department” and that general Census data cannot be shared for law enforcement purposes, said Wolf. “The Department of Justice has absolutely no say in whether census data can be shared, [and it] has to follow federal statutes just like everyone else.”
An accurate Census is critical to our democracy
As the 2020 Census approaches, it’s important to remember the vital role that the census plays in the country’s political representation and in the allocation of federal resources. The census affects the distribution of power at federal, state, and local levels. It also helps the federal government determine funding levels for critical functions such as education and healthcare.
The prospect of changes to census confidentiality laws is concerning, but also improbable: Any change would require Congressional action, and that’s exceedingly unlikely now that Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives. Wolf thinks the DOJ’s exchange may simply have been experimental.
“This administration likes to test the fences,” he said. “This fence is an electrical fence; it would be incredibly illegal.”