Immigration, Middle Eastern Americans, and Census Categories

By Kristine Ajrouch
Submitted to Session P4893 (What's Really New about the Trump Era for Arab and Muslim Americans?, 2017 Annual Meeting
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Immigration to the United States continues to elicit debate and interest among policy makers and researchers alike. Of particular significance is the historical tie of immigration policy to national origins and to the evolving racial dynamics of politics in the United States. This paper will focus on the sociological meanings of identity and the importance of context to provide a critical analysis of links between immigration and race in the U.S. The analysis will begin with a historical overview of immigration and resulting policies, comparing and contrasting the Trump era stance to earlier time periods as a means to situate the current status of Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans. Next, drawing from a series of multivariate statistical analyses using data available from the U.S. decennial Census and American Community Surveys, an overview of recent findings around topics of gender, immigration and socio-economic achievement, identity, ethnic heterogeneity, and health of Arab Americans will be presented. Novel findings include: 1) region of origin matters for men, and not women, concerning socio-economic achievement; 2) immigrant and citizenship status predict whether Arab Americans identify with Arab-only ancestry; 3) ancestry influences identity so that those who report Syrian and Lebanese ancestry are most likely to also report being mixed with ‘whites’ as opposed to ‘blacks’ if they ever mixed with non-Arabs; 4) contrary to the healthy immigrant effect hypothesis, immigrant Arab Americans aged 65 and above report worse functional health than their U.S. born counterparts. Discussion of these findings will include the strengths and challenges inherent to using currently available means to identify Arab Americans. In sum, this paper will draw from historical and present day contexts of immigration, a social constructionist approach to the politics around race, as well as the current availability of U.S. Census data on Arab Americans to end with a critical consideration of the pros and cons of including a separate Middle East and North African (MENA) ethnic category in the decennial Census questionnaire.