By Christopher Marquis
January 23, 2002
WASHINGTON -- At least 58,000 men from Middle Eastern nations are in the United States illegally, nearly 10 times the number that the United States is seeking to deport, census data show.
In its first estimates by nationality of the underground population, the Census Bureau reported that 114,818 Middle Eastern men and women are in the country illegally. That represents a little more than 1 percent of the total number of illegal immigrants who are counted as living in the United States.
The estimates do not include the number of illegal immigrants from Pakistan and from the Arab nations of northern Africa. Immigration officials said there were 40,000 illegal immigrants from Pakistan.
Whatever the grand total, it far outstrips the 6,000 Middle Eastern men recently sought by the Justice Department for ignoring deportation orders.
Responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the authorities said this month that federal, state and local officials would work with immigration officers to find and deport such immigrants.
At least three of the hijackers on Sept. 11 were in the United States illegally, the authorities say.
The new information, based on the 2000 census, has led to criticism that the government strategy is too narrow.
"It is difficult to overstate the implications of this new report for the security of our nation," said Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group in Washington that has pushed for lowering the number of immigrants who enter the country. "While the vast majority of illegals from the Middle East are not terrorists, the fact that tens of thousands of people from that region and millions more from the rest of the world can settle in the United States illegally means that terrorists who wish to do so face few obstacles."
But advocates for Arab and Muslim Americans argue that the government approach is too expansive and unfairly singles out certain citizens and residents for legal scrutiny because of their ethnicity.
A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ibrahim Hooper, said the government needed to enforce its immigration rules across the board, and not just as they related to Muslims.
"The point is you can't single out a specific race and ethnicity for selective law enforcement," Mr. Hooper said. "It's not within the American value system."
The number of illegal immigrants from the Middle East is a fraction of the overall underground population, which has exploded in the last 10 years.
Census officials estimate that 8.7 million illegal immigrants were in the country in 2000, more than twice as many the 3.8 million reported in 1990. More than half the illegal immigrants come from North and Central America, with Mexico providing 44 percent, the government says.
About 1.3 million illegal immigrants are from Asia, 1.1 million from Europe and 624,419 from South America, the census figures show.
From 1990 to 2000, the illegal population became younger, with 40 percent from 18 years old to 29 years old; increasingly male, at 54.2 percent; and predominantly Hispanic, at 61.5 percent.
Because the underground population is difficult to count, census officials used an estimating technique that took the foreign-born population and removed legal immigrants, assumed deaths and emigrants.
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The Center for Immigration Studies is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization which examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States. It is not affiliated with any other group.