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Jewish World Review March 31, 2000 /24 Adar II, 5760

Joseph Perkins

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You don't need to be paranoid to be wary of the census -- JAPANESE-AMERICANS hardly could have imagined, back in 1940, that the information they dutifully provided to U.S. Census takers would be used by the federal government to abrogate their civil rights.

But following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. War Department asked the Census Bureau for information identifying communities up and down the West Coast with high concentrations of Japanese-Americans. Census officials were only too happy to oblige, according to a paper co-authored by William Seltzer of Fordham University and Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (which will be presented Saturday, March 25 at the annual conference of the Population Association of America).

The Census Bureau supplied the War Department with demographic data identifying where persons of Japanese descent lived -- geographic tracts as small as city blocks. In Los Angeles, the authors relate, Census officials were quite ready to turn over the names of Japanese residents. All told, some 50,000 Japanese immigrants and their 70,000 American-born descendants were forcibly removed from their homes by agents of the U.S. government -- conducting themselves very much like an American Gestapo -- and placed in internment camps. And the Census Bureau helped to make this possible.

Six decades later, the current Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt reflects that the Japanese internment, from 1942 to 1947, was "a sad, shameful moment in American political history." And he assures those who fear some future misuse of the personal information they provide the Census Bureau that its "legal obligations and ethical policies would never allow a repeat of 1942."

Well, hardly any of the 120 million American households that have received, or will shortly receive, the 2000 Census questionnaire expect that, by completing the form, they will wind up in an internment camp. However, a recent Gallup poll indicates that half of Americans believe that the Census Bureau will share the personal information it collects about them with other agencies, and without their knowledge and consent.

The Census Bureau insists that this is not so. "By law," its Web site assures, "the Census Bureau cannot share individual census records with any other government agencies, including welfare agencies, the Immigration and Naturalizations Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, courts, police, and the military." This declaration would be a comfort except that Americans are well aware that the government often collects information for one specific purpose only to eventually allow the use of that information for other purposes. And the citizenry cannot do a thing about it.

Indeed, when Social Security came into being, every American was given a number that was to be used exclusively for purposes of maintaining a Social Security file. Today, the Social Security Web site informs: "We can't prevent others from asking for your number. And we can't control what uses are made of your number."

It's the same thing with drivers' licenses. State departments of motor vehicles used to collect personal information on individual motorists for the express purposes of the DMVs themselves. Today, that information is readily available to practically any government agency, from law enforcement to social services.

The federal government has taken advantage of this. Since 1996, it has required that states revoke the drivers' licenses of "deadbeat" parents who are, allegedly, behind on their child support payments.

So while Census director Prewitt assures the American people that the highly confidential information they "volunteer" to the bureau will not be shared with other government agencies and will never be used for punitive purposes, it is not hard to imagine that the day will come when the Solons in Washington decide that, under certain circumstances, certain government agencies may have access to individual census records.

And if the Census Bureau could use its non-computerized database six decades ago to help the federal government round up Japanese-Americans, to betray their privacy, to trample upon their constitutional rights, one can only imagine the abuses of which the government is capable today.

JWR periodic contributor Joseph Perkins is San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and a television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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