AB 2763 was introduced by Assembly Member Essayli (R) on February, 15, 2024.  The bill was co-sponsored by Assembly Member Laura Friedman (D) Laura Friedman, who represents Glendale and Burbank, in April 2024. With Friedman’s co-sponsorship, the MENA Inclusion Act has become a bipartisan bill, and it has the backing of representatives of large MENA constituencies.  Bill was placed on consent calendar for Assembly Judiciary Committee on April 9, 2024, and on consent calendar of Assembly Public Safety on April 17, 2024 and passed unanimously. The bill has been referred to Assembly Appropriation Committee but no date is set.

 You can take action today and help support the MENA Inclusion Act by simply clicking here


Below is the letter support that was submitted to the Assembly on behalf of IADC.

Additional information provided by Arab American Council and #CountMENAinCA Coalition

A state and federal partnership is important when reporting data information about health outcomes, planning districts, and building local constituencies. However, states can tailor policies to meet state requirements and reflect local conditions while adhering to federal standards. California can go beyond the federal standards of the MENA demographic and lead the country by properly capturing and understanding the state’s racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity. Thus, to ensure full data equity and inclusion within the State of California, as well as to ensure the rights to equal protections and civil dignity, identities and populations that are an enormous part of California’s diverse social and economic fabric must be considered, included, and supported through legislation concerning the MENA population. 

Contextualization: Equal Protection Laws and Infringement of the MENA Population’s Civil Rights


Under Article 1 of the California Constitution, California applies strict scrutiny to protective classes, which should be applied to the Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) population. 


The foundational principles of the 14th Amendment and the California Constitution affirm that every citizen is entitled to equal protection under the law, ensuring their rights are inviolable. Article 1, Section 7(a) of the California Constitution states, “A person may not be … denied equal protection of the laws.” When applying equal protection, California stands apart from the rest of the country in that it is stricter in its practice of equal protection. Individuals, groups, and communities that hold suspect classifications, such as immutable and inalienable traits like gender, race, and national origin, have historically been given fair due process to equal protections under the tutelage of California law than the rest of the country. 


When applying strict scrutiny for equal protection, the individual or community must fit the criteria for suspect classification. Suspect classification must fit three criteria: 1) Be based upon an “immutable trait” such as gender or race, 2) Bear no relation to a person’s ability to perform or contribute to society, and 3) Be associated with a stigma of inferiority and second-class citizenship. 


Due to the MENA population’s mis-categorization, a stigma of inferiority has perpetuated a legacy of misrepresentation and discrimination. Historically, racial and immigration definitions have been challenging to define due to the arbitrary nature inherent in the construction of race and particularly the ever-evolving, fluid concept of Whiteness. To explain, California refers to the 1997 race and ethnic standards the US Census Bureau set under the Office of Management of Budget (due to change by 2029). The “White” racial category is defined within these standards as “the original people of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” Unlike their European counterparts, who tend to be given fair treatment under equal protection, communities from the Middle East and North Africa have historically endured both systemic and individual racism and discrimination. In the early 1900s, Middle Eastern and North Africans were barred from entering the US under nativist immigration laws, some were victims of extralegal violence in the 1920s, and many had their rights infringed upon after 9/11 at the advent of the War on Terror, which continues today. In 1909, Venice Police Officer George Shishm – an immigrant from Lebanon – was rendered by Los Angeles courts to be “Chinese” or “Mongolian” due to his background tracing to West Asia and was disqualified from making arrests on white citizens. After a series of court arguments, Shishm successfully argued for his citizenship and naturalization into America but was considered “white without the privilege.” Being in the white category has brought a legacy of misrepresentation and discrimination against immigrants and citizens from the Middle East and North Africa, indicating that being mislabeled and misrepresented has only caused more damage than good. These immigration restrictions, racist violence, and privacy infringements upon Americans who have MENA heritage have faced violations of their equal protections and a “stigma of inferiority and second-class citizenship.” 


According to the Code of Federal Regulations, the definition of “socially disadvantaged” is individuals who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias within American society because of their identities as members of groups and without regard to their individual qualities. The social disadvantage must stem from circumstances beyond their control. 


MENA populations may fall within this classification, given the enforcement of various governmental surveillance and censorship measures, such as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, COINTELPRO, the PATRIOT Act, and the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. The ramifications of ineffective U.S. domestic and foreign policies often translate into the targeting of individuals from the MENA region, resulting in the violation of their human rights and exacerbating their systemic social disadvantages and subjugation within the United States, among other repercussions. To illustrate, the California Senate Office of Research published findings on how the federal government’s post-9/11 policies severely encroached on the rights of its MENA citizens. Ms. Banafsheh Akhlaghi, an immigration lawyer in San Diego, recounted how the government’s Special Registration call-in programs resulted in 13 missing clients, who were found to be in secret detention. Muhammad Bachir of Anaheim was ordered to immigration interviews that led to long-term detentions under false accusations, and San Franciscan Tarek Elaydi recalls the discrimination faced at the border due to their name and ethnic background. All of these cases consisted of California residents.


The enduring consequences of these programs, bills, and initiatives extend beyond mere surveillance and legal restrictions, impacting individuals psychologically, socioeconomically, and through entrenched bigotry and prejudice. Collectively, they have contributed to the manufacturing and perpetuation of systemic discrimination, thereby leaving these communities at times unprotected and many times disadvantaged.


Lack of quality, disaggregated data on California’s MENA population


In recent years, the U.S. government has taken serious approaches to recognize America’s Middle Eastern and North African populations. Since 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau has conducted large-scale studies to determine the need for a unique MENA category separate from the White category. The 2015 National Content Test results recommend creating a minimum reporting category for the MENA population. In the 2020 Census, the US Census Bureau allowed Americans to write-in their identities correlated with the MENA standard. The results show that over 3.5 million people in the United States identified with a sub-population under the MENA category (1.5% of the White population, alone or in any combination). California has the largest MENA population in the U.S., with 740,219 reported (3.4% of California’s “White” population, alone or in any combination).


However, these figures significantly underestimate the actual count. This discrepancy partly arises because the State of California does not employ the Census Bureau’s recommendations nor utilize its own MENA category to analyze population data. Thus, it is nearly impossible to acquire accurate data when the question arises of what “challenges” Iranians, Lebanese, or other MENA citizens face in California. In other words, it is by design that the acquisition of data about the MENA population has been difficult to uncover. It constitutes a secondary form of discrimination when a population, particularly one to be disadvantaged, is made to feel unseen, ignored, and marginalized. 


Still, researchers and academics have labored to uncover data disparities concerning California’s MENA population. A 2021 study by Abouelezam, et al., looked at differences between Arab and Iranian populations in Northern California by classifying them based on their ethnicity, language, or surname. Abouelezam’s study found significant variations in risk factors, chronic health conditions, and mental health conditions between Arab and Iranian Americans, suggesting the need for culturally tailored interventions to address the distinct health needs of different MENA identities. Additionally, a 2022 study by Al-Naser, et al., looked at the COVID-19 testing, admissions, and mortality rates for Arab Americans in the San Diego area, revealing that Arab Americans had higher odds of testing positive for COVID-19 compared to other racial and ethnic groups, but lower odds of hospital admissions and in-hospital mortality. Furthermore, a  2020 study by Bakhtiari looked at birth outcomes of mothers in California with MENA-identifying names during the events of September 11, 2001, finding that women with MENA-identifying names had increased rates of low birth weights, underscoring how racialized discrimination can impact health outcomes. The traditional ethnic/racial categories, where the MENA population tends to be clumped with other groups, highlight the realities that the community truly faces: a lack of data on MENA populations causes unseen health crises. 


Unsurprisingly, California admits there is a need to include the MENA category. California’s own Ethnic Studies Curriculum, admitted into state law in 2021, states on Page 396 that the U.S. Census “does not yet recognize Arab Americans as an official minority group in the United States” and points out that many “do not self-identify as white.” The State of California has promulgated symbolic gestures to honor and acknowledge the MENA population, exemplified by Nowruz resolutions and the Governor’s proclamation of Arab American Heritage Month. However, the state has yet to implement a classification tailored to gather data and formally recognize the MENA population as a distinct demographic group. Such recognition could potentially lead to improved health and well-being outcomes for these communities.


Ultimately, the lack of disaggregated data leads to a void in understanding the MENA population. While the government makes symbolic gestures and political stances, the absence of concrete solutions leaves the community vulnerable to real health and psychological repercussions stemming from hate crimes and other identity-related stressors.


Having a MENA standard in California would create appropriate and accurate measures to facilitate the development of interventions geared toward enhancing the well-being of the MENA population. Better data would lead to better services, fostering a healthier and more satisfied community. The MENA standard will ensure accurate data collection, which is paramount for developing interventions that could enhance the lives of MENA-identifying individuals. Accurate data on the MENA community will improve the efficacy of the products/services of organizations serving MENA community members.


California has always provided recognition and opportunity to communities long ignored by the federal government. It has taken initiatives to recognize and protect communities of color, religious communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. Unfortunately, the MENA population has regularly been rendered “invisible” or an “other” despite being contributors and impactful members of Californian society. MENA Californians have established beloved neighborhoods and community centers such as Little Armenia, Persian Square (Tehrangeles), and Little Arabia. They have also contributed an enormous amount in taxes. According to a 2015 New American Economy study, MENA immigrants in California paid more than $1.5 billion in state and local taxes in 2015—or 1.6% of all state and local taxes. In Los Angeles alone, MENA immigrants contributed $145.6 million in state and local taxes in 2015.


With its diverse and large MENA population, California could set the tone and lead other states in collecting, measuring, and utilizing data on the MENA populations. Armenians, Somalis, and Sudanese, currently not considered by the national standard, are a large and important population in California. Recognizing them alongside Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and others sets the tone of California’s dedication to equal protection, opportunity, and civil dignity for all Americans. 


For all the reasons above, the MENA Inclusion Act represents a pivotal step toward advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in California. This legislation embodies the principles of social justice and equality by addressing historical injustices, rectifying data disparities, and fostering political representation. By cultivating trust, the government empowers MENA constituents to play an active role in their communities, leading to positive cascading effects. Higher levels of trust and equality advance civic engagement, underscoring the importance of inclusive policies to strengthen societal cohesion. The proposed MENA standard is a critical step toward dismantling the institutional barriers that impede the MENA community’s access to these fundamental rights. Our government must provide indispensable safeguards and a measure of protection to MENA communities in California.

For more information visit: https://www.countmenainca.org/