U.S. Arab population doubles over 20 years

Published December 4, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Arab population in the United States has
nearly doubled in the past two decades, according to the Census
Bureau's first report on the group.

Experts cited liberalized U.S. immigration laws and unrest in
the Middle East that led many people to come to America.

The bureau counted nearly 1.2 million Arabs in the United States
in 2000, compared with 860,000 in 1990 and 610,000 in 1980.

About 60 percent trace their ancestry to three countries:
Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

While earlier Arab immigrants came from countries with large
Christian populations, newer arrivals come from heavily Muslim
countries such as Iraq and Yemen.

"Immigrants from the Arab world come for the same reason all
immigrants come - economic opportunity, opportunities to have an
education, to develop a professional career," said Helen Samhan,
executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation, a
research group.

Samhan said the lifting of U.S. immigration quotas in the 1960s
opened the door to people from Arab countries and many took
advantage during the 1980s and 1990s, with a large number coming
from nations such as Lebanon and Iraq where there were wars.

Almost half of the Arabs in the United States live in five
states - California (190,890), New York (120,370), Michigan
(115,284), New Jersey (71,770) and Florida (77,461).

"It would be better to come to America than Europe or Canada,"
said Zak Trad, 33, of Anaheim, Calif., who came from Lebanon three
years ago. "It's the largest Arab community not in an Arab country.
I didn't think I would be a stranger here."

New York City, the first stop for millions of immigrants for
more than a century, had the largest Arab population among U.S.
cities, 69,985. The Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Mich., where many
Arabs first settled to work in the automobile industry, was next at
29,181.

Sterling Heights, Mich., was the city with the largest
percentage of Arab-Americans, 3.7 percent, followed by Jersey City,
N.J., with 2.8 percent. Dearborn's population is about 30 percent
Arab but it was not ranked because the Census Bureau only counted
cities with at least 100,000 residents; Dearborn has about
98,000.

The Census Bureau asked those who received the long version of
their decennial questionnaire to list their ancestry. The form was
sent to about one-sixth of all households.

Arab-Americans say their population is larger than that reported
by the Census Bureau, but many are reluctant to fill out government
forms because they came from countries with oppressive regimes.

The census report stops at 2000 so there is no data to measure
the impact of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But tighter
immigration procedures imposed after then have reduced the flow of
Arabs to the United States.

The Arab American Institute Foundation said that just over
15,000 visas were issued to immigrants from Arab countries in 2002,
compared with more than 21,000 in 2001.

"The fact that immigration procedures and visa applications have
been so tightly screened is going to slow down the volume of new
immigrants," Samhan said. "The scrutiny that will be placed on
immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries is going to be even
greater than other places."

The backlash that occurred against Arab Americans following
Sept. 11 served to draw them closer and get more involved in
politics. The concentration of Arab-Americans in a few key election
states, particularly Michigan, also has boosted their political
influence.

In October, seven of the eight Democratic presidential
candidates attended the Arab American Institute's national
leadership conference in Dearborn, as did the heads of the
Democratic and Republican parties.