Japanese American Incarceration Survivors, Muslim Group Oppose Census Citizenship Question

Survivors and activists filed an amicus brief challenging the controversial question.

Japanese American and Muslim activists have united to legally oppose a question on citizenship in the upcoming U.S. census

The Fred T. Korematsu Center, Council on American-Islamic Relations and several Japanese American survivors of World War II incarceration, including former Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, filed an amicus brief last week supporting those challenging the 2020 censuscitizenship question.

Given the painful history of the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, along with the need to assure the public that the government will not misuse their data, the groups argue that the Supreme Court should uphold U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman’s ruling that the Trump administration should remove the citizenship question. 

“As Secretary Mineta and other individual amici, the Sakamoto sisters, have expressed, because of their experience, they are concerned about how the citizenship question can hurt other groups and individuals, which has motivated them to speak up,” Robert Chang, president and executive director of the Korematsu Center, told HuffPost. 

Karen and Ken Korematsu pose near photographs of their father, Fred Korematsu, during a presentation of his portrait to the N
Karen and Ken Korematsu pose near photographs of their father, Fred Korematsu, during a presentation of his portrait to the National Portrait Gallery on Feb. 2, 2012. Korematsu challenged the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross attempted to justify the citizenship question last year, writing that the census’ long-form American Community Survey, which already asks about citizenship, doesn’t collect specific enough data for the Department of Justice to enforce the Voting Rights Act. He also claimed there was little evidence the citizenship question would decrease response rates and that the question was already well-tested.

However, experts argue that the citizenship question could significantly reduce participation in the census, particularly in communities of color that are already undercounted. 

The Trump administration also claims that the data is confidential, so individuals shouldn’t fear consequences.

History says otherwise, noted Pratik Shah, co-head of the Supreme Court and appellate practice of law firm Akin Gump, which filed the brief on behalf of the groups. 

“The incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WW II shows that neither holds up: The government’s claims of national security threats proved false, and census data was exploited to facilitate the mass round-up. So ‘trust us’ is simply not a viable defense,” Shah told HuffPost.

The brief explains how the government previously breached the public’s trust and weaponized the census against individuals, with Japanese American incarceration being one of the most glaring examples. 

As the amicus brief points out, the U.S. Census Bureau secretly authorized the use of confidential information to target Japanese Americans, resulting in the imprisonment of some 120,000 people following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. 

In this March 30, 1942 file photo, Cpl. George Bushy holds the child of Shigeko Kitamoto, center, as her family and other Jap
In this March 30, 1942 file photo, Cpl. George Bushy holds the child of Shigeko Kitamoto, center, as her family and other Japanese Americans are forcibly removed from Bainbridge Island, Washington, to be incarcerated during World War II.

Arab Americans have also been affected by U.S. census data. The brief points out that following the 9/11 attacks, the agency now known a U.S. Customs and Border Protection requested a list of U.S. cities that had more than 1,000 Arab American residents. The Census Bureau handed over the information and later provided an even more specific breakdown of Arab American populations. 

“Government officials subsequently insisted that the Bureau disclosed this data to help notify travelers about currency reporting requirements and to improve airport signage,” the brief explains. “Muslim Americans, however, viewed these post-9/11 disclosures as pretextual and infected with animus, thereby reducing their trust and participation in the 2010 decennial census.”

The suit also urges the Supreme Court to properly scrutinize the Trump administration’s rationale for the citizenship question ― something it failed to do when it came to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII. 

Chang noted to HuffPost that citizenship is a touchy subject for the Japanese American community, in part because the U.S. denied citizenship to Japanese immigrants, a practice upheld in the Supreme Court case Ozawa v. ThindThe racist naturalization policy wasn’t lifted until 1952, so prior to that, only the U.S.-born children of Japanese immigrants were eligible to be U.S. citizens. 

“The result was that by WWII, a very large portion of the Japanese American community was non-citizen (and who could not, even if they had wanted to, become citizens),” Chang said. “It was this formal non-citizen status that was used as part of the excuse for claiming disloyalty or the questioning of loyalty.”

Chang emphasizes that, for this reason, “this community is sensitive to the way that citizenship status within a particular community can be used to harm a community.”

Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments pertaining to whether Ross’ decision to add a citizenship question to the census violates the law.