Census considers new Middle Eastern classification

The Detroit News and wire reports

Detroit – — The federal government may allow those of Middle Eastern and North African descent to identify as such on the next 10-year Census, which could give Arab-Americans greater political clout and access to public funding.

The U.S. Census Bureau will test the new Middle East-North Africa classification for possible inclusion on the 2020 Census if it gets enough positive feedback about the proposed change by Sunday, when the public comment period ends.

The Census now allows people to claim Hispanic, Japanese and even Hawaiian ancestry, but there's no designation for Arab-Americans. So they're considered as white by the Census, which helps determine congressional district boundaries and how billions of dollars in federal aid are allocated.

The designation has prompted debate for years in Michigan, home to at least 192,000 residents of Arab ancestry, according to the Arab American Institute of Washington, D.C. That's second to California; Metro Detroit is believed to have the largest metropolitan population of Arab-Americans in the U.S.

Some Arab-Americans resist the designation because they don't consider themselves minorities, said Imad Hamad, executive director of the American Human Rights Council of Dearborn. Others — including Hamad — said Arab-Americans could gain clout and access to services if they were considered separate.

"We are not benefiting now as a member of the majority, nor are we now enjoying the benefits of a minority," Hamad said. "Both ways, it's a loss to our community. It's a basis of human rights that every individual should be counted."

In Metro Detroit, social services groups such as ACCESS have pushed for the new classification. The group's director, Hassan Jaber, serves as a member of the U.S. Census' National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations. He said a change would allow people to identify under sub-categories as Assyrian, Kurdish, Chaldeans and Berbers.

The change could help Arab-Americans qualify for up to $400 billion in federal programs and give greater protection under civil rights laws, according to an analysis from the Pew Research Center. Any switch would require congressional approval, which Jaber said could be difficult. Some Republican lawmakers are critical of the Census and have sought to eliminate community surveys, which, unlike the main decennial count, aren't constitutionally mandated.

Hamad said some Arab-Americans are leery of giving information after 9/11 for fear of being singled out. Others argue a change could isolate Arab-Americans.

"I'm not for it. … I feel I'm a Mayflower American," said Eide Alawan, 74, the son of a Syrian immigrant and interfaith outreach coordinator of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.

"We're broken down into villages and countries (where we come from) — I don't like that."

The Census estimates there are about 1.6 million people of Arab ancestry nationwide, but Hamad said many feel that number is underestimated. He contended there are 450,000 people of Middle East descent in Metro Detroit.

"There have never been accurate numbers from the government," said Vanessa Denha Garmo, co-publisher of the Southfield-based Chaldean News. "There's certainly a benefit to getting a better handle on the populations."

The Arab American News has editorialized in favor of the designation because the "numbers are now all over the place" and it could "move us into minority status, identify our purchasing power and all sorts of good things," said the Dearborn newspaper's publisher, Osama Siblani.

People of Middle Eastern descent aren't a homogenous group. Denha Garmo said few Chaldeans, for instance, would check a box that allowed them to identify only as Middle Eastern and not Chaldean.

The debate is a switch from 100 years ago when Middle Easterners fought to be considered white by the Census Bureau.

In the early 20th century, U.S. laws excluded Asians from entry, and groups were formed to fight classifying Middle Eastern immigrants as Asian. They were eventually deemed white and allowed to become U.S. citizens.

To weigh in on the issue, email Jennifer Jessup, at the Census Bureau, at jjessup@doc.gov.