Friday, July 30, 2004

U.S.: HSD compiling data on Arabs in the U.S.

The Census Bureau has provided specially tabulated population statistics on Arab-Americans to the Department of Homeland Security, including detailed information on how many people of Arab backgrounds live in certain ZIP codes.

The assistance is legal, but civil liberties groups and Arab-American advocacy organizations say it is a dangerous breach of public trust and liken it to the Census Bureau's compilation of similar information about Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The tabulations were produced in August 2002 and December 2003 in response to requests from what is now the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security. One set listed cities with more than 1,000 Arab-Americans. The second, far more detailed, provided ZIP-code-level breakdowns of Arab-American populations, sorted by country of origin. The categories provided were Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Palestinian, Syrian and two general categories, "Arab/Arabic" and "Other Arab."

Hermann Habermann, deputy director of the Census Bureau, said such cooperation was standard practice. "We are required to provide information to other federal agencies," he said. "This is not a cabal calculating secret tabulations."

But Mr. Habermann also expressed concern over application of the data, adding: "We do worry about how information will be used. However, we have not been given the authority to determine which organization gets which information."

Census tabulations of specialized data are legal as long as they do not identify any individual.

Christiana Halsey, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, said the requests were made to help the agency identify in which airports to post signs and pamphlets in Arabic. "The information is not in any way being used for law enforcement purposes," she said. "It's being used to educate the traveler. We're simply using basic demographic information to help us communicate U.S. laws and regulations to the traveling public."

But critics of the information sharing said general demographic snapshots could be derived without such detailed information and that the ZIP-code-level data with its breakdowns of ancestral origin seemed particularly excessive because for all of the groups only English or Arabic need be used.

"The real question is to Homeland Security," said Samia El-Badry, an Arab-American member of the Census Bureau's decennial census advisory committee. "What are they hiding? Why do they need this?"
What am I missing? Why is this unreasonable?

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