DOJ officials left room in debate to reconsider privacy around census citizenship question

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A Justice Department attorney suggested a Trump administration official answer vaguely when asked if the Census Bureau would share the answers to the controversial citizenship question with law enforcement, according to documents filed in court.

The filing renews the chief concern that critics of the citizenship question have raised: that it could be used by immigration authorities to find and deport undocumented immigrants.

The documents show the attorney advised an assistant attorney general in June to “not directly address the question” in case the administration decides to look for a way around strict privacy protections.

“I don’t think we want to say too much there in case the issues … come up later for renewed debate,” the attorney, Ben Aguinaga, wrote to John Gore, who was then the acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division.

The questions were from a Democratic member of Congress, who asked if the PATRIOT Act “can compel the Secretary of Commerce to disclose confidential census data.” The draft answer says the Justice “Department is committed to abiding by all laws protecting the confidentiality and nondisclosure of such responses.”

CNN has reached out to the Justice Department for a response to the court documents.

The Washington Post first reported the contents of the court documents Monday.

The internal documents were recently filed in one of six lawsuits challenging the citizenship question.

Related Content: Supreme Court to hear arguments in census dispute

The plaintiffs, the city of San Jose and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, wrote that the documents link their concerns about the question to the decision by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that it would appear on the 2020 census. The document “confirms the substantiality of these fears.”
The Justice Department has not yet responded to the filing.

The census operates under strict confidentiality restrictions set in some cases by federal law. But the politics surrounding the citizenship question have heightened fears that answers to the question could be used by law enforcement authorities.

The Census Bureau has said those fears are unfounded.

The bureau’s own data shows how deep the concerns are. “Hispanics believe the census would be used to find undocumented people,” census researchers recently wrote in a presentation about challenges in public messaging about the census.

“Latinos are going to be afraid to be counted because of the retaliation that could happen — it’s like giving the government information, saying, ‘Oh, there are more here,’ ” one participant in a Spanish-language focus group said, according to the researchers’ report.

In an interview with Yahoo last week, Ross disputed allegations that he had changed his story about the origins of the question and had misled Congress as a result. He said conversations with White House officials were “natural” and “what triggered the process that led to the determination to do it was” a request from the Justice Department. Ross said the information was intended to aid in enforcing voting rules.

Arguments in another case challenging the question are set to conclude next week in a New York courtroom.

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