But experts caution that there is not enough information available yet to reach a definitive conclusion.

About 15,000 Arabs received US visas in 2002 - a drop from 21,000 in 2001 - according to the Arab American Institute.

While immigration statistics for 2003 have not been released, some representatives from the Arab American community are concerned that the decline could become a pattern.

“I suspect that we’re looking at a downward trend in the near future,” said Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation, a Washington advocacy group.

New border security measures created after the 11 September 2001 attacks and some unpopular US policies in the Middle East could significantly impact the growth of the Arab American population, Samhan said.

“It depends so much on the administration’s policy toward the whole region and to immigration in general,” she said. “The harder it is to get visas, the harder it is to immigrate.”

Population statistics

At the same time, the US Census Bureau published a report late last year that said the Arab American population had nearly doubled over the past two decades.

But the bureau completed its research in 2000, too early to measure the influence of the 9/11 attacks or the war in Iraq.

$15mn was spent on persuading
Muslims they are welcome in the US

Officials from the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs said overall immigration to the US declined in 2002, not just from Arab countries.

“We’ve had a steady decrease everywhere since 9/11, all over the world,” said consular affairs spokesman Stuart Patt.

Poor economic conditions and a general concern about travel safety contributed to a 30% drop in the number of US visa applications in 2002, Patt said.

He also said there was no evidence to suggest that any Bush administration policy was responsible for a decline in the number of Arabs coming to the US.

Visa decline

In 2002, the total number of US temporary visas granted to foreign citizens dropped 15% from the previous year, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a non-partisan immigration thinktank.

There was a 37% decline in temporary visas approved for visitors from Asian-Islamic countries in 2002, said Elizabeth Grieco, data manager for MPI’s migration information source.

Whether 11 September or the Bush administration’s response to the attacks had any direct impact on those numbers is still unclear, she said.

“To say that 9/11 had nothing to do with it would be naive, but to say it was the driving engine, I can’t say,” she said.

Immigration fears

Some Arab Americans, however, believe the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) may have spooked people in the Arab world.  

“I think the special registration was part of a climate that was discriminatory against Arabs and sent a message that was very negative and racist”

Husayn Ibish,
communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

The programme, implemented in 2002, required thousands of visitors from mainly Arab and Muslim countries to submit to fingerprinting and government interviews.

“I think the special registration was part of a climate that was discriminatory against Arabs and sent a message that was very negative and racist and that discouraged Arabs from travelling to the United States,” said Husayn Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil rights organisation in Washington.

While Ibish said parts of the Arab media exaggerated the perceived “oppression” of Arabs in the US after 11 September, he also said subsequent US policies, such as the special registration programme, discouraged many Arabs from coming here.

“If people get the impression that they’re not welcome, then they’re less likely to go,” he said.

The fact that visitors from mostly Middle Eastern countries will still be interviewed by immigration officials upon their arrival remains a source of concern, Samhan said.

“Anything that singles out countries we think is just not good policy,” she said. “Instead of being based on behaviour, it’s based on nationality and it’s not a good use of our resources.”