E.g., 11/23/2014
E.g., 11/23/2014

Middle Eastern and North African Immigrants in the United States

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Middle Eastern and North African Immigrants in the United States

Of the 830,000 immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa living in the United States in 2008, about 9 percent were children.

Immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa have a long history in the United States. As early as 1920, the country was home to at least 50,000 immigrants from the region – primarily from what was then Palestine and Syria, including present-day Lebanon.

By 2009, there were about 830,000 immigrants in the United States from the Middle East and North Africa. Accounting for just 2.2 percent of all immigrants in the United States, immigrants from the region have received growing attention in the post-9/11 era, particularly with U.S. military action in the Middle East and the recent string of uprisings and political unrest in North Africa that have displaced thousands of refugees.

Iraqis are the largest single immigrant population from the Middle East and North Africa in the United States, followed closely by Egyptians. The number of immigrants from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, however, has also grown rapidly over the past decade.

Compared to other immigrant groups, the foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa are much better educated and tend to have higher levels of English proficiency, but have comparatively low rates of labor force participation. California, Michigan, and New York are home to the largest populations of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in the country (for more information on immigrants by state, please see the ACS/Census Data tool on the MPI Data Hub).

This spotlight focuses on the foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa residing in the United States, and examines the population's size, geographic distribution, and socioeconomic characteristics using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007-2009 American Community Survey (ACS) and the 1990 and 2000 Decennial Censuses. The first section is based for the most part on 2009 ACS data, while a sample of pooled 2007-2009 ACS data was used in the second section in order to generate a sufficiently large sample size.

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Definitions
The U.S. Census Bureau defines the foreign born as individuals who had no U.S. citizenship at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or certain other types of temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization.

The terms "foreign born" and "immigrant" are used interchangeably.

 

Size, Distribution, and Growth

Methodology
In keeping with the U.S. Census Bureau's definitions, this Spotlight defines the Middle East and North Africa region as including the following countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco (and Western Sahara), Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

The U.S. Census Bureau also categorizes Israel (and Palestine), Turkey, and Cyprus as part of the region. However, they have been excluded from this analysis.

It is not possible to identify all countries of birth in the American Community Survey (ACS). Some countries are grouped into general categories (e.g., Libya, Tunisia, and Western Sahara are grouped together under the category "North Africa, n.e.c."), and some immigrants list "Asia, not elsewhere classified" as their birthplace. Where an individual selected the latter in addition to identifying their race as "white," they have been categorized for this Spotlight as having been born in the Middle East.

 

Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview

Size, Distribution, and Growth

There were about 830,000 foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa residing in the United States in 2009.
There were 829,545 foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa residing in the United States in 2009, accounting for 2.2 percent of the country's 38.5 million immigrants.

The number of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants residing in the United States has grown noticeably in recent decades, increasing faster than the overall immigrant population but slower than other immigrant groups such as those from Latin America and South and East Asia. (see Table 1).

 

Table 1. Total and Middle East/North Africa Foreign-Born Populations, 1960 to 2009

Year Foreign born Middle East and North Africa born
Number Share of all foreign born
1960 9,738,091 78,648 0.8%
1970 9,619,302 122,506 1.3%
1980 14,079,906 223,162 1.6%
1990 19,797,316 348,162 1.8%
2000 31,107,889 613,854* 2.0%
2009 38,517,104 829,545 2.2%

Note: *Includes estimate of the Sudanese born from 5 percent IPUMS sample of the 2000 Decennial Census.
Source: Data for 2000 from the 2000 census; data for 2009 from the American Community Survey 2009. Data for earlier decades from Gibson, Campbell and Emily Lennon, U.S. Census Bureau, Working Paper No. 29, Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1999. Available online.


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Iraqi, Egyptian, and Lebanese immigrants accounted for over half of the foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa in 2009.
The foreign born from Iraq were the largest single immigrant group from the Middle East and North Africa with 154,220 immigrants (or 19 percent of the total number from that region), followed by the foreign born from Egypt (138,194, or 17 percent), Lebanon (123,614, or 15 percent), Syria (60,827, or 8 percent), Jordan (60,406, or 8 percent), and Morocco (58,283, or 8 percent).

According to the 2000 Census (the most recent data available for these countries), the foreign born from Tunisia (6,200) and Libya (4,600) were among the smallest groups of the Middle Eastern and North African immigrant population resident in the United States.

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Over the past decade, the fastest-growing immigrant groups from the Middle East and North Africa have been Saudis, Yemenis, Sudanese, and Iraqis.
Between 2000 and 2009, the fastest-growing immigrant groups from the Middle East and North Africa have been Saudis (105 percent increase), Yemenis (99 percent increase), Sudanese (98 percent increase), and Iraqis (63 percent increase).

By contrast, the foreign born from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt grew more slowly with 13 percent, 16 percent, and 19 percent increases, respectively. The number of foreign born from Kuwait has decreased by 9 percent since the year 2000.

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Nearly half of all immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa resided in California, Michigan, New York, and Texas.
California had the largest number of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in 2008 with 20 percent of the total, followed by Michigan (12 percent), New York (11 percent), and Texas (6 percent).

New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, Virginia, and Massachusetts also had substantial immigrant populations from the Middle East and North Africa.

Note: In order to generate a sufficiently large sample, these estimates are based on pooled ACS data for 2007 to 2009. The reference year is 2008.

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There were 2.0 million members of the Middle Eastern and North African diaspora residing in the United States in 2009.
Of the 2.0 million members of the Middle Eastern and North African diaspora residing in the United States in 2009, 45 percent were born in the region and 49 percent were native-born U.S. citizens. The rest were born primarily in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and Canada (in descending order).

Note: There is no universally recognized definition of the term "diaspora." Most often, the term includes individuals who self-identify as having ancestral ties to a specific country of origin. The Middle Eastern and North African diaspora in the United States includes all individuals who were born in a Middle Eastern or North African country or who selected at least one of the following responses on the two ACS questions about ancestry: "Arab," "Arabic," "Algerian," "Chaldean," "Egyptian," "Iraqi," "Jordanian," "Kurdish," "Lebanese," "Middle Eastern," "Moroccan," "Palestinian," "Syrian", or "Yemeni."

Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview

Note: In order to generate a sufficiently large sample, this section is based on pooled ACS data for 2007 to 2009. The reference year is 2008.

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One-third of the foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa in the United States arrived in 2000 or later.
Around 2008, 34 percent of the roughly 830,000 Middle Eastern and North African foreign born had entered the country in 2000 or later, with 28 percent having entered between 1990 and 1999, 18 percent between 1980 and 1989, 13 percent between 1970 and 1979, and the remaining 8 percent prior to 1970.

By contrast, 30 percent of the 38 million total foreign born entered the country in 2000 or later with 29 percent entering between 1990 and 1999, 20 percent entering between 1980 and 1989, 11 percent between 1970 and 1979, and the remaining 10 percent prior to 1970.

Immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa were much more likely than other immigrant groups to be naturalized U.S. citizens.
Among the foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa, 59 percent were naturalized U.S. citizens, compared with 43 percent among the overall foreign-born population.

Immigrants from Lebanon (74 percent), Syria (71 percent), and Jordan (66 percent) were most likely among all immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa to be naturalized U.S. citizens, while the foreign born from Morocco (49 percent), Sudan (40 percent), and Saudi Arabia (23 percent) were least likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens.

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Over three-quarters of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in 2008 were adults of working age.
Of the immigrant population from the Middle East and North Africa residing in the United States in 2008, 9 percent were minors (under the age of 18), 69 percent were adults of working age (between 18 and 54), and 22 percent were seniors (age 55 and older).

Of the total foreign-born population in the United States around 2008, 7 percent were minors, 69 percent were of working age, and 23 percent were seniors.

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Middle Eastern and North African immigrant men outnumbered women in 2008.
Over half of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants residing in the United States in 2008 were men (56 percent). Among all immigrants, the male to female ratio is more even, with men representing 50.1 percent and women accounting for 49.9 percent.

The predominance of men among the foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa was greatest among those from Saudi Arabia (63 percent male), Sudan (62 percent), Yemen (60 percent male), Kuwait (59 percent male), and Morocco (59 percent male). The ratio of men to women was lowest among immigrants from Syria (53 percent male) and Iraq (52 percent male).

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Almost all foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa identified their race as "white."
Most immigrants (89 percent) from the Middle East and North Africa identified their race as "white." The foreign born from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were more likely to identify themselves as Asian, with 21 and 18 percent reporting, respectively. By contrast, 81 percent of Sudanese immigrants identified themselves as "black."

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Over one-third of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in 2008 were limited English proficient.
About 40 percent of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants age 5 and older reported speaking English less than "very well," thus classifying them as limited English proficient (LEP). The share of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants who are LEP is lower than that among all foreign born age 5 and older (52 percent).

A relatively small share – 12 percent – of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants age 5 and older reported speaking "English only," while 47 percent reported speaking English "very well."

Certain immigrant groups from the Middle East and North Africa were much more likely than others to be LEP. Among the foreign born age 5 and older from Yemen, 64 percent were LEP, compared with 51 percent of Iraqis and 44 percent of Syrians. The foreign born from Algeria (35 percent), Lebanon (33 percent), and Kuwait (21 percent) were least likely among all immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa to be LEP.

(Note: The term "limited English proficient" refers to any person age 5 and older who reported speaking English "not at all," "not well," or "well" on their survey questionnaire. Individuals who reported speaking only English or speaking English "very well" are considered proficient in English).

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Three-quarters of limited English proficient Middle Eastern and North African immigrants spoke Arabic.
Among the over 300,000 limited English proficient immigrants age 5 and older from Middle Eastern and North African countries, 75 percent indicated that they spoke Arabic. Other common languages include Armenian, French, and the grouped category of Syriac, Aramaic, and Chaldean.

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Over one-third of foreign-born adults from the Middle East and North Africa had a bachelor's degree or higher.
In terms of academic achievement, Middle Eastern and North African immigrants were better educated than both other immigrants and the native born.

In 2008, 43 percent of Middle Eastern and North African adults age 25 and older had a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 28 percent among all 30.1 million foreign-born adults and 29 percent of all 165.3 million native-born adults. An additional 21 percent had some college education or an associate's degree, compared with19 percent among all immigrant adults and 31 percent of all native-born adults.

On the other end of the education continuum, 15 percent of foreign-born adults from the Middle East and North Africa had no high school diploma or the equivalent general education diploma (GED) – much lower than the proportion among all foreign-born adults (30 percent) but higher than among native-born adults (10 percent). About 22 percent of Middle Eastern and North African immigrant adults reported their highest level of education as a high school diploma or GED, compared with 23 percent among all foreign-born adults and 31 percent among native-born adults.

Foreign-born adults from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, and Algeria tended to be better educated than their Middle Eastern and North African peers, with 69 percent, 65 percent, 53 percent, and 52 percent, respectively, holding a bachelor's degree or higher. Immigrants from Sudan, Iraq, and Yemen were among the least educated, with 34, 29, and 12 percent holding a Bachelor's degree or higher.

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Immigrant men and women from the Middle East and North Africa were less likely to participate in the civilian labor force than were foreign-born men and women overall.
In 2008, foreign-born men age 16 and older from the Middle East and North Africa were less likely to participate in the civilian labor force (77 percent) than were all foreign-born men (80 percent). Foreign-born women from the Middle East and North Africa were also less likely to participate in the labor force (43 percent) than were other immigrant women (57 percent).

Among men, Moroccans (88 percent) and Sudanese (85 percent) have the highest labor force participation rates, while Iraqis (72 percent) and Saudis (43 percent) have the lowest labor force participation rates.

Moroccan and Sudanese immigrant women also had the highest labor force participation rates (55 percent), while Syrian (35 percent), Saudi (33 percent), and Yemeni (18 percent) women had the lowest labor force participation rates.

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Over one-third of employed Middle Eastern and North African-born men worked in wholesale and retail trade.
Among the 314,000 Middle Eastern and North African immigrant male workers age 16 and older employed in the civilian labor force in 2008, 34 percent worked in the wholesale and retail trade industries and 18 percent worked in professional services such as law, banking, management, real estate, and computer services. (see Table 2)

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The education, health, social services, arts, and entertainment industries employed the largest number of Middle Eastern and North African women.
Among the 128,000 foreign-born female workers age 16 and older from the Middle East and North Africa who were employed in the civilian labor force in 2008, 37 percent worked in the education, healthcare, social services, arts, and entertainment industries. A large number also worked in the wholesale and retail trade industries.

 

Table 2. Industries of Employed Workers

   Foreign born from the Middle East and North Africa Total Foreign Born
   Male   Female   Male   Female 
Total employment 314,000 135,000 14,218,000 9,942,000
Agriculture and mining* 1  <1  7 2
Construction 5 1 18 1
Manufacturing 11 7 15 11
Wholesale and retail trade 34 26 21 22
Professional services 14 8 11 14
Other services** 18 19 16 17
Education, health, social services, arts and entertainment 15 37 11 31
Public administration 3 3 2 2

Notes: *includes forestry, fishing, and hunting. ** Includes transportation and public utilities, personal services, and waste management.
Source: 2007-09 American Community Survey.


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Immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa had higher median family incomes than other immigrants.
Foreign-born adults of prime working age (25 to 55) from the Middle East and North Africa had a median annual family income of $54,000, which is somewhat higher than the median of $51,200 for all immigrant adults of the same age group. However, there are notable differences among countries of origin: the median family income of adults of prime working age from Lebanon ($72,400), Kuwait ($70,500), and Algeria ($70,000) was much higher than the median family income of adults in that age group from Yemen ($36,000) and Sudan ($34,000).

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About one-fifth of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa lived in poverty in 2008.
In 2008, about 21 percent of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa lived in poverty. Immigrants from Yemen (36 percent), Sudan (32 percent), and Iraq (32 percent) were most likely to live in poverty while immigrants from Kuwait (14 percent), Morocco (13 percent), Lebanon (13 percent), and Algeria (13 percent) were least likely to live in poverty.

Note: Individuals residing in families with a total annual income of less than the federal poverty line are described as living in poverty. Whether an individual falls below the official poverty line depends not only on total family income, but also on the size of the family, the number of children, and the age of the head of household. The ACS reports total income over the 12 months preceding the interview date.

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For more information about ACS data and methodology, click here.

Sources

Gibson, Campbell and Emily Lennon. Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990. U.S. Census Bureau, Working Paper No. 29. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1999. Available online.

Ruggles, J., Steven, Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. 2010. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. Available online.