SUITLAND, Md. The Census Bureau's decision to give to the Department of Homeland Security data that identified populations of Arab-Americans was the modern-day equivalent of its pinpointing Japanese-American communities when internment camps were opened during World War II, members of an advisory board told the agency's top officials on Tuesday.
"This for the Arab-American community is 1942," said Barry Steinhardt, a civil liberties lawyer and member of the panel, the Decennial Census Advisory Committee. "Thousands of Arab-Americans have been rounded up and deported."
The criticism came at a daylong special meeting held at the Census Bureau's headquarters in this Washington suburb to discuss the disclosure this summer that on two occasions after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the agency provided comprehensive reports to Homeland Security listing Arab-American populations by city and ZIP code.
The data, from the 2000 census, had already been made public on the agency's Internet site and did not include any individual names or addresses, information the agency is prohibited from disclosing. Further, Homeland Security officials have said the data were requested simply to help them decide at which airports they needed to post Arabic language signs, not for law enforcement purposes.
But the Census Bureau director acknowledged at the meeting that by tabulating and handing over the data to the Department of Homeland Security, even if doing so broke no laws, the agency had undermined public trust, potentially discouraging Arab-Americans or other minority groups from filling out future census forms.
"It affected the perception of the Census Bureau," said the director, Charles Louis Kincannon. "And that is a very important problem for us."
But Kincannon rejected comparisons to what occurred during World War II, when the bureau gave maps and statistics to the Army identifying where Japanese-Americans lived.
"This is not 1942," he said. "That kind of internment is not going on."
The meeting largely drew leaders of a variety of ethnic and racial groups, some of them members of the committee, and the criticism there was voiced by many other than Arab-Americans. Representatives of Asians, Hispanics, blacks, American Indians and Native Alaskans each objected to the agency's action.
"Once you lose the trust of the public, it is hard to get it back," said Karen Narasaki, a member of the committee who said her parents and grandparents were sent to internment camps during World War II.
Concern was also raised about a new effort by the Census Bureau to prepare annual estimates of illegal immigrants as part of an overall population count. Those estimates, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office said, may permit approximate counts by geographic area of the number of illegal-immigrant children of school age, data that members of the committee said might ultimately be used against migrant families.
But Kincannon said that if the Census Bureau wanted to report population sizes accurately, it needed to try to count fast-growing immigrant and illegal-immigrant populations.
"It is in our interest and the public's interest to have a good estimate," he said.
Since the disclosure over the summer that the data were given to the Homeland Security Department, the Census Bureau has already changed the way it handles requests from law enforcement agencies for special tabulations of census data or extractions of data already tabulated. Before any such information is released, a senior administrator must approve the request. Requests that involve some "sensitive" populations children, noncitizens, prisoners, the poor, the terminally ill and certain "small minority groups" also require that high-level approval even if the data are not being shared with a law enforcement agency.
But several members of the advisory board said the new rule was too ambiguous, particularly when it came to determining which minorities were considered "sensitive." One solution suggested by committee members Tuesday would be to release to the public any special tabulations prepared for law enforcement agencies, so that there would be less suspicion about what kind of data the Census Bureau might be sharing. Others urged the creation of a kind of ombudsman a "privacy officer" who would routinely review these kinds of data requests.
Kincannon said he expected to issue a more permanent and comprehensive revision of rules in this area next year, to try to rebuild public confidence.
"To conduct the census," he said, "we depend on the trust of the respondents."