The Arab population in the United States has nearly doubled over the course of the last two decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's first report ever on the Arab-American population.
The doubling of the population means that Arab-Americans have finally become a political force to be reckoned with. At least that's the evaluation of Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based research group. Ms. Samhan says the number of Arabs in the United States may actually be three times higher than the 1.2 million being reported by the Census Bureau. That's because respondents aren't required to identify themselves as "Arab" on any census form, and so many do not. But regardless of the numbers, Helen Samhan says the Arab-American community has clearly become big enough to command the attention of politicians.
"We found that when we had our leadership conference in Michigan in October, we had eight of the presidential campaigns come and address us, which is unprecedented," she said. "We certainly turned a major corner, in terms of proving that we're a constituency that can mobilize voters, can help raise money, can get volunteers, and the fact that we had such a good turn-out at the conference shows that candidates are paying attention."
One of the reasons the Arab-American community has gotten so good at mobilizing voters and recruiting volunteers is that it's comprised of an increasing number of native-born Americans, people who grew up speaking English and feeling entitled to participate in American politics.
Around 62 percent of Arab-Americans were born in the United States, and many are under the age of 40. Helen Samhan says the U.S. relaxed its immigration laws in the 1960s and 1970s, and this led to an increase in the number of immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Iran. Many of these immigrants had children after they arrived in the United States, and those children are now in their twenties and thirties.
At a gathering in New York City sponsored by the Network of Arab American Professionals, it's clear that this generation is politically savvy. Twenty-two-year-old Yasmin Hamidi, a fundraiser for a non-profit group that facilitates interfaith dialogue about global issues, says when the United States began to target Arabs with policies such as the one requiring Arab men to register with the government when visiting the United States, it galvanized the native-born Arab community.
"Because most of us are American-born, our English tends to be better, we have U.S. citizenship, a lot of us may not be the ones who are directly effected, but our family is," she explains. "Our family that comes from overseas. People in our community. And we feel the need to, in essence, take care of your own, and to say, you know, you can reconcile being Arab and being American. It's not two conflicting forces."
Yasmin Hamidi is Muslim, though she says her family isn't a particularly religious one. The majority of Arabs in the United States are Christian, but that's been changing. Throughout the 1990s, there was a substantial influx of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries like Iraq and Yemen. The Arab-American community has become increasingly vocal about demanding that American politicians consider the Palestinian viewpoint when evaluating the crisis in the Middle East. And 40-year-old Henry Habib, a second-generation Lebanese-American, says he's definitely noticed a change in recent years.
"I mean, years ago, if you were an Arab organization and you donated a $100,000 to one of the presidential candidates, they accepted it," he explains. "But as soon as the news media found out, and then one of the other groups that are against Arab-American policies said 'You're accepting their money?' they would give the money back. How embarrassing was that? We're Americans. Today, I don't think that will happen."
Henry Habib agrees with Yasmin Hamidi that being Arab can be reconciled with being American, but points out that non-Arab Americans aren't the only people who need to be reminded of this. Mr. Habib says he recently attended a U.S. Army recruiting session, that was designed to reach out to Arabic-language speakers. He says many Arab-Americans are suspicious of the armed forces, and reluctant to serve as translators. Mr. Habib attended the meeting so that he could act as an intermediary between the Army and the Arab community in the neighborhood where he grew up. But he says that was the only service he could offer. As a second-generation American, Henry Habib doesn't speak Arabic.