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Counting Americans: A New Mideast Box on Census Is Sensitive

The Census Bureau on Feb. 28 for the first time recommended including the new category, which would mostly affect Muslims

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    Counting Americans: A New Mideast Box on Census Is Sensitive
    U.S. Census Bureau

    Zahraa Ballout isn't "white," and she certainly isn't "some other race." If the government gives her the choice of checking a new "Middle East/North Africa" box on a census form, would she?

    Yes, she says, despite some reservations about what it would mean to stand out after Americans elected a president who wants to ban travel from some countries in the region and has spoken favorably of registering Muslims in the U.S.

    "I would feel some wariness because you don't know exactly the consequences or what's coming next after you check the box," says 21-year-old Ballout, a student in Dearborn, Michigan, who's been in the country three years. "I don't want to fool myself to think that checking another box (other than the new one) is going to protect me in some way."

    Ballou's risk-benefit analysis reflects a new caution surrounding the way the U.S. government counts Americans, an every-decade exercise mandated in the Constitution that influences the nation's day-to-day operations in ways big and small. That includes representation in Congress and how taxpayer money is doled out — for education, public health, transportation and more.

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    The Census Bureau on Feb. 28 for the first time recommended including the new category, which would mostly affect Muslims. The Office of Management and Budget is expected to make the decision later this year. The move is the product of years of research and decades of advocacy for Arab and other groups from the region that pre-date Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

    The Census Bureau said that when it tested a new MENA category in 2015, people of Middle Eastern or North African descent tended to check off that box. When it wasn't there, they'd select "white" or, increasingly, "some other race." Including the separate category, the agency said, is "optimal" to get a more accurate count of Americans.

    "There's nothing for me to hide," said Hussein Dabajeh, 30, a lifelong Dearborn resident who said his ancestors arrived from what's now Lebanon in 1911. Dabajeh says he'd check the MENA box. "I can be American of Arab descent without being un-American."

    The disparity can be seen in a basic statistic. The Arab American Institute estimates as many as 3.7 million people in the United States have Arab roots. The Census Bureau estimates there are 1.8 million Arab Americans in the U.S, according to data it has collected. Among other things, that means there are no accurate national numbers to provide clues to whether certain medical ailments are — as suspected — unusually common in people of that background, experts say.

    Both tallies show explosive growth in that population since 2000. And both support the new box on the 2020 census that would represent people with backgrounds from 19 countries in the region.

    But singling oneself out in that way has become sensitive at a time when Trump has linked a crackdown on Muslims with better national security. As a candidate, he called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." As president, Trump has twice ordered travel bans on people from certain majority-Muslim nations. Federal courts have blocked those orders, but on Friday, the Trump administration said it would appeal the latest ruling.

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    In 2016, Trump said the government should investigate mosques in the U.S. in much the same way the New York Police Department's now-shuttered "Demographics Unit" spied on Muslims with help from the CIA. The group assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed, infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques and monitored sermons, The Associated Press reported in 2011.

    "The fear is legitimate. It's something I worry about," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, which has been pushing for the change since before the 1990 census, when it put up posters reading, "We want to be counted, do you?"

    "It's very hard for us now to sort of reject that wholly, because we've been working on it for decades," she adds. "We've been telling our members: We understand why you're concerned, it's a legitimate concern. Let's just proceed with caution."

    Former Census director Robert Groves traces the worries in part to one "black mark" on the department's history. During World War II, the Census Bureau provided the government with neighborhood information to help it sweep up 120,000 people of Japanese descent for imprisonment, under an order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he points out that the law prohibits workers from disclosing personal census information.

    "The culture of the Census Bureau and this law has been successful over successive decades in allowing me and others to say this is the best protection that can be given to people," said Groves, now provost of Georgetown University.

    While some members of the MENA community share the concerns, they also believe the government is powerful enough to discriminate against anyone.

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    "There are better ways to do that than the census," said Germine Awad, a University of Texas psychologist born in Egypt but raised in the United States. "That could happen at any moment."