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Washington — The U.S. Census Bureau is moving forward with a pilot program to test whether to include a new category in the 2020 Census for people of Middle East and North Africa descent.

While the Census Bureau estimates the number of Arab Americans in the United States at 1.8 million, the Arab American Institute estimates the population is closer to 3.7 million. In Michigan, the Census Bureau estimates the population is at 191,600, while the Arab American Institute estimates more than 500,000.

Census Bureau director John H. Thompson told Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, at a Senate hearing Monday that the test is on schedule for this fall. He said the department is in talks with members of the Arab-American community.

"We are looking forward to having an expert meeting of various Middle Eastern and North African scholars this spring so that we can really come up with a definition, if you will, of Middle Eastern and North African that everyone agrees to. ... We're on track."

"Excluding the (Middle Eastern/North African) category has serious ramifications for members of these communities, many of whom live in the State of Michigan," wrote Peters, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, in a February letter to the Census Bureau. "We all want to improve the accuracy of the Census, and it is our belief that including a broad MENA category would help us achieve this shared goal."

Congress would need to approve a creating a new category. The Census Bureau has been studying the idea of including the Middle East/North Africa category and previously asked for comments on the idea, receiving more than 1,000 comments. People from other ethnic origins are allowed to claim ancestry.

The Arab American Institute says Michigan is home to the second highest concentration of Arab Americans in the country, but the census provides no option for people to identify themselves.

The three members of Congress said that since the designation is not included in the Census, Arab Americans are not eligible for protection under a provision of the Voting Rights Act, which ensures the availability of foreign language ballots.

Peters, Stabenow and Dingell also said another issue is "researchers having difficulty conducting studies on health disparities without this critical information and challenges monitoring employment discrimination against Arab Americans without accurate count of the size and location of the population."

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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