On a hot Saturday in August, the parking lot of the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance in West Ridge is filled with the sound of festivities. Kids jump in a bouncy house, Arabic pop music blares on the speakers, and a group of aunties chat as they watch over their charges. The organization, formerly known as the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, hosts this yearly event as a way to connect the families they serve with the rest of the immigrant community.
Children gather round a foldable plastic table with a tawula set, playing a Turkish version of backgammon popular throughout the Middle East. Among them is Asal Alshammari, 11, who lives in West Ridge with her grandparents and sister. She immigrated to America with the rest of her Iraqi family after living in Dubai for nine years. Since moving to Chicago, Alshammari has been puzzled by the way Americans categorize race. “I identify myself as Middle Eastern, but [on school forms] it says I’m white, and that’s kind of confusing,” she says.
Sometimes she’ll even whip out her smartphone to show other kids at school exactly where Iraq is located: western Asia. “If someone says, ‘Oh, you’re white,’ I tell them ‘No, I’m Asian.’ But they’re always like, ‘What? You don’t seem Asian,’ because I have blue eyes from my grandpa,” she says. Alshammari wishes there were a box that was a better fit for people from countries like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and she’s not alone.
As the 2020 U.S. Census approaches, local groups are working to ensure there’s an accurate count of their communities. But the census has never included any racial or ethnic category for Middle Eastern or North African communities. That, along with the current climate of fear surrounding immigration status, is a big challenge for folks hoping a full census count can help the community build political representation and gain access to crucial social services.
More than 20 years ago, when the federal government made major changes to the way race and ethnicity are reported on official forms, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget recommended additional testing on a category that would be called Middle Eastern North African, or MENA. Without a MENA option on the form, people from this region usually chose the white category, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 Race and Ethnicity Analysis.
In a 2015 community forum held by census officials to discuss the MENA category, participants indicated that “MENA responses should not be classified as White. They thought classifying this group as White makes them invisible in the data, even though they face discrimination in many aspects of society.”
With the support of advocacy groups like the Arab American Institute, the census bureau began testing a potential MENA category addition in 2015, and in 2017 released preliminary results that stated, “The use of a distinct Middle Eastern or North African category appears to elicit higher quality data for people who would identify with MENA.”
Despite all this, the bureau announced in 2018 that a MENA category would not be included in the 2020 census, claiming that “more research and testing is needed” since some in the MENA community felt that the designation should be treated as an ethnicity rather than a race.
“Some of us identify as white, some as Brown, some as Black,” says Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “We don’t necessarily need a category that reduces us to one race, but we do need visibility, inclusion, and to be seen as a group of Americans with needs and not just the focus of counterterrorism programs or political bigotry.”
With the decision made, local groups serving MENA residents in the Chicago region are now focused on ensuring that their community participates, period.
An accurate count is essential, they say, since census numbers determine the allocation of funding for services like cultural diversity training for institutions that interact with the community. Though federal funding formulas are complex, a George Washington University study in 2018 estimated that for every Illinois resident not counted, the state would lose $840 in Medicaid funding.
In Cook County, where an estimated 100,000 residents are of Middle Eastern, North African, or Southwest Asian descent according to a Los Angeles Times analysis, outreach efforts are beginning. It won’t be easy, says Imelda Salazar, an organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project, noting that many MENA residents are descended from immigrants or are immigrants themselves. Salazar says outreach to immigrants in general is difficult given the Trump administration’s policies, including increased restrictions on who can seek asylum and the executive order restricting entry of foreign nationals from some Muslim-majority countries.
“We give a lot of know-your-rights trainings and we tell people, Do not open the door [for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents],” she says, which makes it hard to allay their anxiety about opening the door for census workers. To try to dissipate these fears, SWOP precedes many of its workshops with a conversation about current deportation and detention issues and then talks about the legally mandated confidentiality of U.S. Census data. Salazar emphasizes that “fear won’t take us anywhere” and that if “we really want to build power, we need to be counted.”
Distrust of the federal government is particularly salient in the sizable Arab American community of Bridgeview, a southwest suburb. In the 2018 documentary The Feeling of Being Watched, Bridgeview native Assia Boundaoui uncovered evidence that Muslim residents were under FBI surveillance as far back as 1985 as part of a counterintelligence effort known as Operation Vulgar Betrayal.
With Trump administration policies like the public charge rule and the Muslim ban, some people have become wary even of receiving public benefits, according to Nareman Taha, cofounder of Arab American Family Services, a nonprofit social service agency in the southwest suburbs. They’re afraid the government is collecting their personal information through the institutions that dole out benefits.
“Clients would come and say, ‘Close my file. I don’t want anything from the government. I don’t want food stamps. I don’t want medical cards,'” she says. “And these are people who are working poor, they’re eligible. . . . Imagine that detriment and the impact that had on families.”
To counteract that fear, groups like AAFS are relying on the relationships and trust built over years working within communities.
AAFS founded the Arab American Complete Count Committee, which meets at their office, and they are local members of the national Yalla Count Me In campaign—both are aimed at increasing census participation. AAFS is asking people to mark the “other” box on the form and write in “Arab” or their country of origin, in the hopes that when the Census Bureau reevaluates the MENA category there will be evidence to support its inclusion. Other groups, like the Arab American Action Network, say they have not yet decided what to recommend; they’re planning more conversations with community and national partners before making a decision.
Though race and ethnicity data in the census are rarely tied directly to federal funding, local organizations say that if the data were available, it could help them raise money from other sources and draw publicity for their work.
When Hatem Abudayyeh of the Arab American Action Network raises funds for the group’s work to protect youth against discrimination in schools, he says government representatives and donors will ask questions like, “What are the academic levels? How do they do in school? What are their literacy rates?”
“We were in a coalition with Black and Latino organizations, and they all had these stats about how Black and Latino kids were being suspended and expelled from school at much higher rates than whites for the same alleged activities,” he explains. “And we didn’t have any numbers for the Arab kids, even though anecdotally we knew that those things were happening to Arabs as well.”
Taha, at AAFS, says most of their funds come from state government, corporations, foundations, and private donors. The group has been encouraging local universities and other nonprofits to collect data using the MENA category to help them make the case for the services they provide, like domestic violence prevention and immigration legal consultation. One funder, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, did just that, adding a MENA category to collect better health data statewide.
Some organizations rely on their own surveys or draw noncensus data from sources like Chicago Public Schools. CPS conducts an annual survey asking what languages are spoken in students’ homes, and Arabic was the third-most common non-English language in 2019, preceded only by Spanish and Cantonese, according to data City Bureau received through a public records request.
Laura Youngberg, the executive director of the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance, says her group was able to use CPS data to advocate for federal and state grants that support its youth and family services. “It’s a battle of like going back to the state and saying, your data is wrong,” she says. “This is the correct data [from the school district]. This is why we deserve to have funding.”
The census category gets at “the bigger issue of, how does a community define itself and how the families define themselves,” Youngberg says. Better data around MENA communities could improve language access for Arabic-speaking people, increase visibility and political representation, and contribute to a larger sense of belonging.
Beyond the census, Taha wants to push for the MENA category at the state level, asking newly elected governor J.B. Pritzker, “How would you recognize the Arab American community? I mean, you came to us when you needed our votes.” Now, more than ever, her community needs to be counted.
Sarah Conway contributed reporting.
This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Woodlawn. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org.
Around the world, trillions of dollars are spent each year building skyscrapers, highways, pipelines, schools, and countless other structures, and the resources that could be saved using advanced analytics, automations, machine learning, and other technologies that are available now is staggering. As a primary investor and procurer in infrastructure projects and the shepherd of national economies, governments have a clear incentive to help accelerate adoption within the construction industry.
New technologies can advance project outcomes in the construction industry. Governments are well-poised to cultivate greater adoption.
An industry notorious for cost and time overruns, the construction sector can capture significant efficiencies by adopting new technologies. While many executives acknowledge the potential of new technology, they often hesitate to risk multi-billion-dollar projects on applications they consider unproven. To create greater value from public and private spending on large capital projects, governments can help clear the path and bring new technologies to bear.
New technologies—advanced analytics, automation, machine learning, and the Internet of Things, for example—have delivered substantial benefits to industries at the forefront of adoption, particularly telecommunications and finance. And while these disruptive forces will eventually wash over every industry, the construction industry still lags.
Digital tools are already available, with $18 billion invested in construction technology between 2013 and early 2018. McKinsey research, however, finds that leaders struggle to adopt these applications—not because of cost concerns or lack of interest, but rather because of insufficient internal processes and risk aversion.
Pressing need for improvement
Using technologies to boost construction productivity can have a profound impact on public and private spending. In the United States alone, expenditures on construction reached $1.29 trillion in 2018, after rising an average of 7.4 percent annually over the previous five years.1 1.US Census Bureau.
The public sector accounts for a significant share of this total. Stripped of residential and private-use projects, construction expenditure on public infrastructure—for instance health care, education, and transportation—reached $334 billion in 2018 (Exhibit 1). Public spending will finance almost 80 percent of these infrastructure expenditures, by our estimates.
And the rise in construction spending is unlikely to abate soon. Increased urbanization is creating demand for projects that support denser population centers, such as transportation, power, and sewage. And in the United States, deteriorating public infrastructure must be addressed urgently. McKinsey research found that the country requires an additional $500 billion in infrastructure funding between 2017 and 2035 to meet its estimated requirements.
Amid this growing need, public and private projects have struggled to keep costs and construction times within original projections, especially for complex, high-cost projects. Early adopters have already begun to test new technologies to improve project outcomes. For instance, some companies are using wearable GPS devices or smartphone apps to optimize workflows and resources. Others have begun using virtual-reality systems for supervisors and crew to “walk through” processes to prepare sequencing, identify potential problems, and conduct safety trainings more efficiently.
Governments are well positioned to catalyze change
Despite these early efforts, many companies are reluctant to experiment in untested waters. This is understandable since billions of dollars and corporate reputations are at risk with these projects, and there is no room for do-overs. These hurdles, however, present a prime opportunity for governments to take the lead and break the inertia that slows the construction industry from entering a digital era.
Public expenditures account for a significant portion of non-residential, public-use construction projects, and government agencies work closely with private companies of all sizes to deliver these complex infrastructure projects. Such projects span a wide range of infrastructure, from roads to buildings to sewer systems (Exhibit 2). The government’s purchasing power touches every corner of the construction industry, while its regulatory power allows it to set standards that are most easily met using new technologies or even to mandate their use.
Our experience and research suggest five measures available to governments that can be powerful tools in accelerating adoption.
Set bold aspirations
At the outset, governments can articulate bold aspirations for the adoption and use of technology in public sector projects. Beyond increasing awareness, such public aspirations demonstrate the priority given to developing a more efficient construction industry through broader deployment of new technologies.
One approach would be to craft a digital construction strategy that encourages the use of new tools to reduce the time and cost of public works projects. For example, clear targets could be set for the use of pre-fabricated or modular components, enabled by digital collaboration tools such as BIM, that would reduce the instances of rework and change orders.
Some countries have already taken steps on this direction. In Ireland, for example, the National BIM Council published a national strategy for the construction industry in 2017 that included clear digital targets.2 2.National BIM Council, Ireland, Roadmap to Digital Transition for Ireland’s Construction Industry 2018-2021, December 2017. As part of its vision, the council strives to reduce project delivery times by 20 percent, increase construction exports by 20 percent, and cut capital costs by 20 percent, all by 2021 compared to 2018 levels.
Create meaningful incentives
Governments can also use their purse strings and tendering processes to create meaningful incentives for construction companies. For example, public grants could be offered to help companies adopt technologies that aid in project design and execution. National competitions and prizes that reward technology adoption in construction projects can also provide first movers with additional financial support, as well as publicly recognizing the importance of using technology to accelerate and bring down the costs of construction. Similarly, governments may consider publicly supported incubators that allow low-risk testing for new applications.
Further, public contracting agencies can insist that successful bidders incorporate digital collaboration tools into publicly-owned projects. For example, the Tennessee Department of Transportation recently announced it will require prime contractors and designers to use construction productivity software on all its projects, beginning with March 2019 contract awards.
In another example, the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority estimated that public and private investment in infrastructure projects will total about $780 billion between 2017 and 2027 and pledged “to use its purchasing power to drive adoption of modern methods of construction.”3 3.UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Transforming Infrastructure Performance, December 2017. Among the announced measures, five major government departments will weigh offsite construction capabilities in assessing tenders for projects.
In addition to creating meaningful incentives to spur adoption, governments can help reduce the barriers and risks that are unique to these emerging technologies. For example, procurement or acquisition regulations often place a great deal of emphasis on a contractor’s past performance in future source selections. However, contractors that wish to pilot new technologies will not have as much experience or demonstrated cases as those offering traditional solutions. If this is seen as a major disadvantage, it could hinder the use of government procurement processes to encourage the adoption of new technologies. Re-thinking these guidelines to make allowances for emerging technologies, giving them time to establish a foothold, may be crucial to accelerated adoption.
At the same time, governments can consider assuming some of the contractor risks associated with trialing new technologies. In selected projects or portions of projects, for example, governments can offer to reimburse contractors if the new technologies fail to deliver projected savings. Such guarantees may sound bold, but they can be successful if focused on targeted project components, phases, or solutions with substantial long-term savings potential.
Measures can also be taken to increase transparency around the costs and progress of public projects. This transparency is supported by digital technologies that provide real-time information on the progress of major projects. In turn, increased transparency creates pressure to complete projects on budget and on time, which becomes easier when new technologies are deployed. The United Kingdom’s infrastructure initiative includes benchmarking tools that track cost and schedule during the life of a project. The system not only follows the progress of individual projects underway, but also assesses the impact of completed projects in their overall asset class, as well as movement toward network goals, such as customer satisfaction and performance, and national goals, such as reduced carbon emissions and economic development.
Ultimately, these benchmarks can be provided on online dashboards that allow the public and other stakeholders to monitor progress, increasing the pressure on construction companies to meet deadlines and costs. For now, like in the United Kingdom, the results of these benchmarking exercises are generally available in annual reports.
As with most industries, the construction sector will struggle to find the talent needed to use new technologies effectively. Governments can play a dual role in helping to meet this challenge. First, they can invest in training programs that not only build needed capabilities but also provide new opportunities to workers displaced by these technologies.
Singapore, for instance, includes construction in its $3.3 billion Industry Transformation Programme, announced as part of the country’s 2016 budget plan.4 4.Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry, “Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs),” Oct. 31, 2016. In this effort, the government wants to train 80,000 workers in new construction technologies, such as design for manufacturing and assembly methods, integrated digital delivery, tools that enhance collaboration, and offsite construction, as well as green building capabilities. Structured internships and additional training for recent university graduates are two measures the country is using to reach this goal.
And second, governments can lead by example by building their own internal digital capabilities. Developing these skills—for instance by creating an advanced analytics group—would allow public agencies to use new technologies more effectively in overseeing projects and optimizing maintenance operations and to understand more clearly how new technologies can be deployed broadly in the industry.
Associated Press on May 03, 2020, released this account on Hard-to-count Arab Americans Urged to Prioritize Census. It is about an easy to notice a change in the US population that is taking time to translate into an administratively operational procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of the newly established community originating mainly from the Middle East.
DEARBORN, MICH. – At a Michigan gas station, the message is obvious — at least to Arabic speakers: Be counted in the 2020 census.
“Provide your community with more/additional opportunities,” the ad on the pump handle reads in Arabic. In the fine print, next to “United States Census 2020,” it adds: “To shape your future with your own hands, start here.”
As state officials and nonprofit groups target hard-to-count groups like immigrants, people of color and those in poverty, many Arab Americans say the undercount is even more pronounced for them. That means one of the largest and most concentrated Arab populations outside the Middle East — those in the Detroit area — could be missing out on federal funding for education, health care, crime prevention and other programs that the census determines how to divvy up.
That also includes money to help states address the fallout from the Coronavirus.
“We are trying to encourage people not just to fill it out because of all the reasons we had given before, where there’s education and health care and all of that, but also because it is essential for the federal government to know who is in Michigan at this point more than ever before,” said Rima Meroueh, director of policy and advocacy with Dearborn-based ACCESS, one of the largest Arab American advocacy nonprofits in the country.
The Arab American community checks many boxes that census and nonprofit officials say are hallmarks of the hardest-to-count communities: large numbers of young children, non-English speakers, recent immigrants and those who often live in multifamily or rental housing.
Arabs arrived en masse to the U.S. as the auto industry ramped up and worker demand grew. By the time those jobs began to decline in more recent decades, communities with strong Middle Eastern cultural roots had been firmly established in the Detroit area. It has remained a destination for people from across the Middle East fleeing conflict, reconnecting with family or simply seeking a better life. Even those who resettle elsewhere often first make their way to Detroit and surrounding cities.
Advocates have pressed ahead with “get out the count” campaigns despite restrictions designed to curb COVID-19. The pandemic has forced the Census Bureau to push back its deadline for finishing the 2020 count from the end of July to the end of October. It’s also asking Congress for permission to delay deadlines next year for giving census data to the states so they can draw new voting maps.
With the changes, ACCESS is stepping up its social media effort, mirroring it to focus as much on the once-a-decade count as their offices, which had been plastered with census posters, Meroueh said.
“If you check out our social media, it’s very census-heavy,” she said.
But groups face a hurdle after the Trump administration decided not to include a category that counts people from the Middle East or North Africa as their own group. The Census Bureau recommended the so-called MENA box in 2017 after years of research and decades of advocacy.
The decision to scrap the choice angers many Arab Americans, who say it hinders representation and needed funding. Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, an Arab American representing part of Detroit and several suburbs, expressed her displeasure while questioning Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham on Capitol Hill in February.
“The community did it right — they went through the process,” she said. “You’re making us invisible.”
Dillingham said the form would have a write-in box, allowing people to describe their ethnicity. It falls short for Tlaib, but Matthew Jaber Stiffler, a University of Michigan lecturer and research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum, said it’s better than nothing. Advocates will have to push harder to get people counted, he said.
“The onus is on community organizations, and local and state governments to get the people to complete the form, because it doesn’t say, ‘Are you Middle Eastern or North African?'” Stiffler said. “We’ll get really good data if enough people fill it out.”
Even though the MENA option isn’t there, Stiffler says census officials did preparatory work for it. If someone writes “Syrian” on their form, for instance, Stiffler has been told that the census will code that within the larger MENA ancestry group.
That’s precisely what Abdullah Haydar did when he filled out his census form electronically, which he said took five minutes.
“I definitely filled it out as soon as I got it. I believe in representation,” said Haydar, a 44-year-old from Canton Township, Michigan, who works in LinkedIn’s software engineering department.
But support for the census isn’t unanimous. Some in the Arab community have raised concerns about government questions over their citizenship status if they participate, though that is not part of the form. Many have reported extra scrutiny since the Trump administration issued a ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries in 2017 — creating an overall chilling effect when it comes to interacting with the government.
“They don’t trust the current administration. They don’t trust what they’re going to do with the information. And when you look at the the so-called Muslim ban that was put in, people don’t want to be on the government’s radar,” said Haydar, who assisted some elderly relatives in filling out their forms.
“I just told them, ‘Look, yes, there may be abuses. There’s always a risk of that. This administration seems to be pushing boundaries. But at the end of the day, this is the basis of our system of government, for people to count,'” he said.
How India can use geospatial intelligence for infrastructure development to fight climate change by Madhusudan Anand is a story that should be also common to those countries of the MENA region because there are certainly more similarities in The race to zero emissions, between the MENA region and India than differences.
Here are a few ways geospatial intelligence can be the catalyst for India’s smart status ambitions.
At the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, India promised to reach Net Zero by 2070 — essentially balancing the total carbon dioxide emissions with its elimination from the environment — called carbon neutrality.
However, India is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the US, and the EU. The latter two have issued a commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050.
Despite the incredible progress made towards sustainability across the country, India seems to be lagging on a global playing field when it comes to mass scale solutions.
Naturally, there’s a lot of expectations and hopes riding on the government’s initiatives, including on the recent PM Gati Shakti Master Plan, which aims to create holistic infrastructure across the country through the incorporation of a centralised geospatial data platform.
The Rs 100 lakh-crore initiative is envisioned to ensure transparency, standardisation, and most importantly, sustainability through efficiency.
The programme will bring together 16 central government agencies, including the Railways, Roads and Highways, Petroleum and Gas, Power, Telecom, Shipping, Aviation, and more.
The overarching idea is that a smart city is sustainable — equipped to mitigate climate change’s effects by harnessing the power of technology.
Geospatial knowledge can provide answers for most everyday problems, especially developing sustainable smart cities. Urban spaces contribute to around 80 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, they are also responsible for 80 percent of a country’s GDP.
With the intersection of artificial intelligence and geospatial data — including census data, satellite imagery, remote sensing, weather data, cell phone data, drawn images, and social media data — urban planning can be highly efficient and contribute to better living conditions both environmentally and financially.
Astoundingly, the market of geospatial analytics is expected to grow at a CAGR of 24 percent between 2020 and 2025.
Here are a few ways geospatial intelligence can be the catalyst for India’s smart status ambitions.
Consumption of resources, energy, ecosystems, and transport directly impact climate change. Geospatial intelligence can help monitor emission sources through collaborative workflows that harness big data to arrive at efficient solutions.
Detailed maps can help evaluate the productivity of land to arrive at its habitable or agricultural status. GIS also makes it easy for civic authorities to balance nature with humans in urban cities to avoid unnecessary culling of green spaces and wildlife conservation. Moreover, it can monitor and correct pollution and noise levels accordingly.
(Ethnic Media Services) — For generations, millions of Americans whose roots lie in the Middle East and North Africa — MENA — have essentially become invisible people because the Census Bureau has denied requests for their own racial category.
“Legally, in America, I’m classified as white,” says Dr. Hamoud Salhi, associate dean of the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, CSU-Dominguez Hills. “I was born in Algeria, which is part of Africa, so technically I could declare myself as African American, but I can’t.”
Palestinian-American Loubna Qutami, a President’s postdoctoral fellow at U.C. Berkeley specializing in ethnic studies, says that since MENA doesn’t have a classification of its own, it legally falls under the white category.
MENA populations have their own specific needs for health care, education, language assistance, and civil rights protection, but they have no way to advocate for themselves because numerically they are folded into the category of white Americans.
To change this, Dr. Salhi, Dr. Qutami, and other MENA leaders have been mobilizing their communities to participate in the 2020 census, encouraging people to write in their ethnicity. They spoke with other experts and activists on a May 13 two-hour video conference organized by Ethnic Media Services on the historical, linguistic and political challenges that make the MENA population among the hardest to count in California.
Geographically, MENA populations live on three continents — from the border of Afghanistan south to the tip of Africa — and in 22 nations in the Middle East alone, with numerous subgroups such as Kurds, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians.
“North Africa is actually a concept that the French gave to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, which they colonized,” says Dr. Salhi. The neighboring countries of Egypt and Libya were added later.
Because of their shared Arabic language and Islamic religion, people in the United States from North Africa were lumped together with people of the Middle East to form the MENA acronym.
For decades, the Census Bureau has turned down requests to add MENA to the official category of races, currently white, black or African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian American and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.
The result, says Dr. Qutami, artificially props up the white population count, which has been in decline, while suppressing the count of MENA residents who don’t identify themselves as white. According to the 2015 Census Bureau’s “National Content Test – Race and Ethnicity Report, “As expected, the percent reporting as White is significantly lower with the inclusion of a distinct MENA category when compared to treatments with no MENA category.”
California mirrors the challenge to the MENA population of geographic size and diversity, says Emilio Vaca, deputy director of the state’s Complete Count Committee, which directs census outreach. The Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey reported that 11 million of California’s 40 million residents, about 27 percent, are immigrants.
“That’s equivalent to the entire state of Georgia,” Vaca emphasized. At home, most of those immigrants speak one or more of 200 languages other than English.
Homayra Yusufi, from the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, broke down the face of diversity in just one San Diego neighborhood that her organization serves: “We have 45 different national origins — from MENA, Asia and Latin America — who speak more than 100 languages in the 6.5-mile City Heights district, a distinct community of refugees and immigrants.” Educating and motivating these groups to participate in the census is a way to engage them in the civic life of the wider city.
Historical necessity — what specific immigrant groups have done to survive — also plays a role in the MENA undercount. Up until the mid-20th century, only whites could own property, and only “free white immigrants” could become American citizens.
To survive and advance, Middle Eastern immigrants successfully petitioned the federal courts to be allowed to identify themselves as white in 1920. North African immigrants, as members of the MENA population, got pulled along and found themselves legally classified as white as well.
The discriminatory policy for citizenship and property ownership favoring whites-only ended with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. But even then, MENA communities found it difficult to raise funds and mobilize calls for action to address their needs. They didn’t know where their fellow compatriots were located and couldn’t raise official numbers to request funds and resources.
“We were helpless. In many instances, we had to generate our own data,” says Dr. Qutami.
Over the years, the Census Bureau has never clearly answered why they’ve refused to include the MENA classification, despite concluding, in a 2017 report, that “the inclusion of a MENA category helps MENA Respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.”
The bureau again turned down the 2018 request for the 2020 census. Karen Battle, chief of the bureau’s population division, announced in a public meeting on census preparations that “We do feel that more research and testing is needed.”
MENA advocates believe filling out the 2020 census is the only way to avoid another undercount. Without doing this, Yusui says, “our communities will continue to be invisible and left in the margins because data really matters.”
Gaining services customized to MENA’s needs is only part of what’s at stake. So, too, argues Yusufi, is building power. MENA populations then can elect individuals “who reflect the needs of our communities and hold lawmakers accountable” when they stigmatize MENA communities.
Kathay Feng of the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause emphasized that participation in the census is the first step to representation. In America, resources and rights are accorded by representation based on the number of residents at all levels, from the state down to the municipality, in proportion to the total population.
“Everyone is counted, regardless of immigration status or whether they are registered voters or not,” Feng said, “because all residents pay taxes in one way or another, and most immigrants would eventually become citizens in the long run.”
Every 10 years, immediately after the decennial census submits population data, electoral districts are redrawn. In California, which has been at the forefront of redistricting reforms, the old practice of allowing legislators to draw district lines based on which populations are sure to vote them back into office — known as gerrymandering — was replaced in 2009 by independently selected commissioners. Nine other states have followed California’s lead.
But, Feng emphasized, to be effective and to ensure their voices are heard, residents have to be engaged at the local level. And this year, there is a danger that anti-immigrant forces will restrict the residents who count in redistricting to voters only.
“In the city of El Cajon, San Diego, we faced a lot of discrimination, especially when the Syrian refugees arrived. Our children got bullied in school but the schools didn’t want to adopt any bullying policy because we don’t have representation,” said Dilkhwaz Ahmed, executive director of License to Freedom. “Representation is very important to us as a Kurdish community, as refugees, and as immigrants.”
Emilio Vaca is optimistic that California can meet the undercount challenge: “As of May 11, California has a self-response rate of 59.6 percent, which is above the national average of 58 percent.” This is all the more impressive, Vaca noted, given how the pandemic has affected outreach.
Many of the speakers on the call testified to the ongoing efforts to shift to virtual outreach and “drive by” caravans and taking the census to where the people are.
“We had a food bank event for the Middle Eastern and Muslim community in south Sacramento that attracted more than 2,000 families who came by cars, and we actually engaged with them about the census in every single car,” said Basim Elkarra, executive director of CAIR in Sacramento. “Many were recent refugees.”
The 2020 census form doesn’t include the MENA racial category, but Question 9 allows respondents to write in “MENA” and their specific ethnicities such as Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian or Kurd.
Being visible in the 2020 census, the speakers agreed, will lay the foundation for the next few MENA generations to build on what this generation has started.
This article originally published in the May 25, 2020 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.
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