Posted by on June 06, 2014 in Blog

By Nadeem Istfan
Summer Intern, 2014

The most recent American Community Survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, a detailed survey distributed to 3 million American families, estimated that the Arab population numbers 1,688,980 people (with an 18,849 margin of error). Due to flaws in the survey’s methodology and other contradicting data, many organizations, including the Arab American Institute, suspect that this estimate is grossly undercounted.

Today, the United States Census Bureau classifies Americans with ancestry from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as “White”. Early 20th Lebanese and Syrian immigrants advocated to be classified as “white” due to the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 that blocked Asian immigration to the United States. These early Arab immigrants wished to distance themselves from the “Asian” label to avoid harsh limitations on Middle Eastern immigrants. However, today, Arab Americans see a great value in being recognized as a separate demographic.

The main flaw with the ACS report is that it does not include an appropriate box for Americans of MENA descent. The survey has an option of: White, Black, American Indian, Asian, and Other. While many MENA Americans will proudly mark an “x” in the “Other” box and print the appropriate heritage, many will check “White” for a variety of reasons – some are not aware of the importance of the survey; third and fourth generation Americans may not identify themselves as “Arab”; and many do not wish to reveal their ancestry to the Census due to fears of government surveillance and discrimination. 

How do we know that the MENA/Arab American population is undercounted? AAI has compared the ACS reports to the 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, which does not rely on self-reported information like the U.S. Census does. Instead, the Year of Immigration Statistics records each immigrant by their country of origin and therefore gives a better estimate than the ACS.

For example, the 2010 ACS claims that around 37,241 Egyptians entered the United States from 2000 to 2009. However, the Office of Immigration Statistics registered 68,559 legal permanent residents entering the United States in that same time period; almost double the volume the ACS estimated.

Similar significant disparities are present in immigration numbers from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq between ACS and Office of Immigration Statistics. This begs us to ask the question: what is the reason behind the gross undercount of MENA citizens? Is it a self-reporting bias or an inherently flawed methodology used by the Census Bureau?

There is a strong effort underway by organizations, including AAI, to introduce a “Middle East and North Africa” option to the 2020 census. This new category will allow MENA citizens to appropriately mark their identity in order to get a better estimate of the true MENA population count. Furthermore, to ensure for a more accurate estimate, advocacy groups like AAI are continuing to campaign for more awareness when filling out the ACS report by explaining why it is important to provide the correct information.