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Response to Terror

Amnesty Foes Point to Tally From Mideast

January 23, 2002|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The number of illegal immigrants from the Middle East--more than 100,000--would not normally jump out from a census report that estimates 8.7 million people are in the United States unlawfully from all regions of the world.

But on Tuesday, advocates for reduced immigration seized on the preliminary findings--criticized as unreliable by other experts--as ammunition in the debate over U.S. immigration policy and whether undocumented workers should be granted some form of amnesty.

Indeed, the estimate of the number of illegal immigrants from the Middle East, although far lower than that of many other places, may provide a new rallying cry for those who wish to restrict entry into the United States.

"It is difficult to overstate the implications of this new report for the security of our nation," said Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that advocates greater restrictions on immigration. ". . . We can't protect ourselves from terrorism without dealing with illegal immigration."

Earlier this month, with little fanfare, the Census Bureau for the first time released estimates of the illegal immigrant population in the United States. The largest number, 3.9 million, came from Mexico, with significant numbers from Central America, South America, Europe and Asia. The 8.7 million total reflected a jump from 3.8 million just 10 years earlier. Although the Mexico figures tower over those from other nations, the estimate of 114,818 from the Middle East is also drawing interest.

"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," Camarota said.

The numbers are considered less than authoritative. For example, it is possible that some foreign students and others with legal status might be counted as illegal, said Cynthia Davis, a census statistician who worked on the report.

The Census Bureau even offered a disclaimer, noting that the data had undergone less review than "official Census Bureau publications" and adding that it was releasing the report to encourage discussion among researchers. "These are not final numbers," Davis cautioned.

In the report, Egypt and Algeria were not included in the Middle East totals but rather were counted as part of Africa. Census analysts did not publish individual numbers for them.

One outside researcher suggested that at least some of the census data appear questionable. "I have trouble accepting that there are 100,000 illegals from Yugoslavia," said Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographic expert with the Urban Institute in Washington. "I have trouble with the finding that there are more illegals from Russia than from El Salvador. I don't think all the numbers in there are gold-plated by any means."

Still, the Center for Immigration Studies said Tuesday that Justice Department efforts to deport about 6,000 Middle Easterners "barely scratch the surface" of the illegal Middle Eastern population in this country.

The center's report argues that lax U.S. border controls and permissive policies toward illegal residents make it "inevitable that millions of illegal aliens will settle in the United States, including tens of thousands from the primary terrorist-sending countries."

But others assailed the center as sensationalizing the census data for its own political purposes. "This is just another attempt to confuse the issue of fighting and preventing terrorism with the issue of immigration," said Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation, deriding what she described as "scare tactics."

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