Coalition Seeks Action on Shared Data on Arab-Americans By Lynette Clemetson

Article from New York Times
WASHINGTON, Aug. 13 -Troubled by the recent public disclosure that the Census Bureau provided demographic data on Arab-Americans to the Department of Homeland Security, a coalition of ethnic advocacy groups, privacy watchdogs and civil rights and civil liberties organizations is demanding further response from both government agencies.
A letter of complaint, drafted by the Arab American Institute Foundation and signed by more than 50 organizations and people, was sent to the Census Bureau on Thursday. The statement questioned the bureau’s “judgment and discretion” in cooperating with domestic security officials and called for the bureau to announce a “plan of action” to address public concerns.
Representatives from the group plan to meet on Friday with Daniel W. Sutherland, the officer for civil rights and civil liberties at the Department of Homeland Security, and Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the division of the department that made the original requests for data.
In late July, results of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group based in Washington, showed that the Census Bureau had provided Customs and Border Protection with two specially tabulated population tables on Arab-Americans. One included detailed breakdowns of people of various Arab ethnicities in specific ZIP codes.
The data sharing is legal, and the various statistics used to compile the specialized tables are publicly available on the Census Bureau’s Web site. But disclosure of the cooperation has generated widespread concern from groups that say the Census Bureau should not provide such assistance to law enforcement agencies.
“Based on the number of organizations who have joined us on this, there is a serious sense of betrayal from many communities,” said Helen Hatab Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation.
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said, “The Census Bureau has unwittingly played into the worst fears of all minority communities that they are being watched, cataloged and tracked for improper purposes.”
Neither C. Louis Kincannon, director of the Census Bureau, nor Hermann Habermann, the bureau’s deputy director, could be reached for comment. Jefferson D. Taylor, a spokesman for the agency, emphasized that the bureau had done nothing illegal and that it had simply reformatted aggregate public data.
But Mr. Taylor said the bureau was taking public concerns very seriously. “The Census Bureau is concerned if any American is not confident about our procedures and policies,” he said. “There is an openness to address these issues and look at them from all perspectives.”
Among the actions under consideration, Mr. Taylor said, is a special meeting on privacy and confidentiality issues during the annual meeting of the Decennial Census Advisory Committee in October.
Mr. Bonner, the customs commissioner, said in a telephone interview that he had already made policy changes in the Customs and Border Protection division in response to public concerns. He said that any request to the Census Bureau for “sensitive information, for instance information about racial or ethnic ancestry,” would now have to be approved at the assistant commissioner level and would have to be shown to be “reasonably related” to the division’s mission.
Mr. Bonner repeated his department’s earlier explanation that the data request was made to help the agency determine in which airports to post signs and pamphlets in Arabic and said that similar data was sought on other ethnic groups.
Kareem W. Shora, director of legal policy for the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee, who will represent the coalition in the meeting with domestic security officials, said that the explanation did not support the gathering of such detailed information and that so far he had received no evidence of similar requests to the Census Bureau about other ethnic groups.
“Obviously, we will give them the benefit of the doubt and give them a chance to let us know their side of the story,” Mr. Shora said. “But so far the explanations have not been satisfactory.”
Mr. Shora said his and other groups were considering requesting Congressional hearings to clarify how data sharing between census and law enforcement agencies should be handled in the future.

Scroll to Top