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September 21, 2017

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For US Muslims, a 'Mideast' box on census is sensitive

DEARBORN, Michigan -- 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.

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 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.

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