Posted by Margaret Lowry on July 06, 2015 in Blog

census.JPGThe Iraqi American community is one of the fastest growing populations of Americans with origins in the Middle East or North Africa, but it’s impossible to get an accurate number of how large the population actually is. The most recent count by the Census Bureau estimates that there are 116,190 Iraqi Americans in the United States, but other data on the community suggests that this number is much too low. For instance, the Office of Immigration Statistics at the Department of Homeland Security found that in only the past decade, 103,487 Iraqis obtained Lawful Permanent Residence in the States. In the past 20 years alone, nearly 200,000 Iraqi Americans were granted Lawful Permanent Resident status. So why aren’t these Iraqi Americans showing up on Census Bureau surveys?

The invisibility of Iraqi Americans in our national counts is symptomatic of the severe undercount by these surveys of the Arab American community. The undercount, apart from stemming research on these communities, has severe consequences on access to certain services – from language assistance at polling places to the enforcement of equal employment opportunities – that are based on Census data.

For decades, the Arab American Institute has been advocating for a category that would encompass the Arab American community in order to fix this undercount. Now, the Census Bureau is considering the inclusion of a Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) category on the 2020 Census.

Last October, the Census Bureau announced that the category would be tested in the Fall of 2015 on the National Content Test. Response to an open comment period about the potential category on the Federal Register broke records with over 13,000 positive comments. Last month, the Bureau convened a group of experts on the MENA region for a Forum on Ethnic Groups from the Middle East and North Africa, where AAI had the chance to present on the importance of the new category to our community. The Forum was meant to provide feedback to the Census Bureau on several areas of the testing process, including the definition of the category, the formatting of the question, and the coding of responses. And, while it’s commendable and necessary that the Census Bureau has taken these steps, there are still several issues that have arisen in the process. 

First, the Census Bureau will test the category using a definition of MENA that designates 19 countries to be included in the category. To arrive at their definition of MENA, which notably excludes Black Arab states along with Turkey, the Census Bureau averaged the definitions of several government agencies and nongovernmental institutions. This method doesn’t take into account the reasoning of the geographic designations included in the average - many of which, like that of the U.S. Department of Commerce, would have been created with international and economic focuses in mind - nor does it take into consideration that while these groups focus on the region in terms of international boundaries, this category needs to consider the experiences of these communities within the United States.  

The definition of MENA that AAI presented to the Census Bureau, which includes all 22 member states of the Arab League and various transnational groups, was designed to be the most comprehensive one possible and inclusive of all communities in the United States with origins in the region. Our efforts in working toward the creation of this new category are based on the common experience these groups share in America. Shared languages, common cultures, and unfortunately, shared barriers to access and representation due to undercounting, serve as the logical basis for this definition. Inclusion of these groups in the MENA category would help to establish more complete data on these communities, allowing for a desperately needed correction of the undercount.  

While the Census Bureau did choose to hold an expert forum on the MENA category to get input from those familiar with the populations in question, participants were informed that the definition that would be used in the testing was the 19-country definition. The testing of this particular definition does not necessarily mean that it will be adopted for the new category, but it does reflect a certain misunderstanding of the community on the part of the Census Bureau. 

Another issue that requires attention is how the Census Bureau will designate respondents to the MENA checkbox. The Middle Eastern and North African population in the United States, much like the Hispanic population, is a very racially diverse community and requires a designation that reflects that diversity. We proposed treating the new category as an ethnicity, following the example of the Hispanic ethnicity on Census surveys. This option would allow respondents to the MENA category to identify as any race, letting the category reflect the community more accurately. Designating the category as an ethnicity would indicate a stronger understanding of MENA communities by the Census Bureau.

As the process for testing continues to move forward, AAI will continue to educate the Census Bureau on the diversity of our community, and work toward an inclusive ethnic category with the hopes of removing barriers and finding a space on the Census for the Arab American community. The 2015 National Content Test will take place this coming fall, and results will be analyzed in early 2016. We've come this far in the process due to the perseverance of community advocates and of the Census Bureau, who understands that the undercount of our community needs to be addressed. Hopefully on the next Census, those missing Iraqi Americans and the 1.9 million Arab Americans not picked up in Census surveys, will become visible.