Middle Easterners are one of the fastest growing immigrant groups to the United States, according to a new study, though the government estimates that one in 10 come into the country illegally.

According to a just-completed study by the Center for Immigration Studies, “interest in coming to the United States remains very strong in the Middle East,” despite fallout from the Sept. 11 attack.

“Middle Easterners are one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in America,” said the CIS report, released yesterday. “While the size of the overall immigrant population (legal and illegal) has tripled since 1970, the number of immigrants from the Middle East has grown more than seven-fold, from less than 200,000 in 1970 to nearly 1.5 million in 2000.

However, officials said the Immigration and Naturalization Service, along with the U.S. Census Bureau, estimate around 10 percent – or 150,000 – Mideastern immigrants are in the U.S. illegally.

CIS officials said the study by Steven A. Camarota, entitled, “Immigrants from the Middle East: A Profile of the Foreign-Born Population from Pakistan to Morocco,” is the first of its kind to “examine the size, growth and characteristics of this population, based on recently released data.”

“In the aftermath of September 11, there has been heightened interest in the Middle Eastern population living in the United States, and its successful integration into American society is increasingly seen as important,” said Mark Krikorian, CIS executive director, in a statement. Yet even after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., he said, “the State Department received some 1.5 million applications from the region for the visa lottery, which awards 50,000 green cards to those who win a random drawing.”

The study also found that if there are no changes in current immigration policy, “1.1. million new immigrants (legal and illegal) from the Middle East are projected to settle in the U.S. by 2010.” Also, CIS found that the religious composition of Middle Eastern immigrants is increasingly Muslim, up from 15 percent in 1970 to 73 percent by 2000.

“The change in religious composition of Middle Eastern immigration is a fascinating social phenomenon,” Camarota said. “It illustrates how our immigration system, which admits people primarily based on whether they have a relative here or if they win the visa lottery, creates social forces and trends that would have been entirely unexpected a generation ago.”

He also predicted that if U.S. immigration policy and Middle Eastern emigration trends continued it would lead to likely “changes in U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict as elected officials respond to this population’s growing electoral importance.”

In other findings:

  • California has the highest Middle Eastern population of any state, with more than 400,000. Of states with the most Middle Eastern immigrants, Virginia has the fastest growing population, followed by Michigan, New York and Texas.

  • Middle Eastern immigrants are some of the most educated immigrant groups in America. In 2000, 49 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to just 28 percent of Americans.
  • CIS found “little evidence of systematic discrimination in the job market” against Middle Eastern immigrants. According to its findings, CIS said the median wage for men in this group was $39,000 in 2000, slightly more than the $38,000 figure cited for Americans as a whole.
  • The immigrant group has a high rate of citizenship, with “55 percent holding American citizenship, compared to 38 percent of immigrants overall.”
  • A significant number of Middle Eastern immigrants use the welfare system. “In 2000, nearly one in five Middle Eastern immigrants and their young children lived in poverty, compared to about one in 10 natives, and 23 percent used at least one major welfare program, compared to only 15 percent of natives,” the study said.

Regarding U.S. immigration laws, “there is no evidence that Middle Easterners violate immigration laws at rates higher than other groups,” said the study.

However, according to some lawmakers, Border Patrol agents and INS port inspectors, a rising number of illegal immigrants are coming from Middle Eastern nations.

And in January, Camarota said, “Not only were at least three of the Sept. 11 hijackers illegal aliens, a number of past terrorists also have been illegal aliens from the Middle East, including Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who tried to bomb the New York subway system in 1997, and Mohammed Salameh, who took part in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who recently returned from his fourth tour of the U.S. southwest border, also said local residents and officials tell him OTMs – “other than Mexican” illegal immigrants –increasingly are turning out to be from the Middle East.

While nationality alone does not signify a distinct terrorist threat, U.S. intelligence officials, the Justice Department and the INS have singled out Middle Eastern immigrants – men especially – for increased scrutiny since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to reports.

“The Tohono O’Odham [Indian Nation] police say there are people coming through their nation that are Middle Eastern,” he said. “Also, they see a lot of Chinese coming through as well.”

The Tohono O’Odham Nation, near Tucson, shares a 76-mile border with Mexico. Officials there say 1,500 illegal immigrants a day come through the nation, which is roughly the size of Connecticut.

Nevertheless, CIS said, “we must avoid calls to single out Middle Eastern immigration.”

“Reduced immigration may well make sense, but it should be applied fairly to all groups,” said the study. “The same goes for efforts to deal with illegal immigration. The law must be enforced for all persons, not just those from one particular part of the world.”

Related stories:

Census: 100,000 Mideast illegals in U.S.

Border killing points up lack of security

Increasing alarm over border security

Critics: US border still porous as sieves

INS loses 73 inspectors since 9-11

INS hasn’t closed terrorist loopholes

US demands probe of border ‘act of war’

Border Patrol encounters Mexican soldiers

Is Mexico reconquering US southwest?

Arab ‘terrorists’ crossing border

High-tech help for immigrants

Border policy attacked by activists

Mexicans declare border war

Mexicans shoot at Border Patrol

Border accident or bounty hunting?

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.