As the government looks ahead to the 2020 census, some civic leaders are seeking changes they say will paint a more vivid picture of an increasingly diverse United States.
"Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America," a report released last month by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a coalition of 200 civil rights groups, promotes a series of changes in how the data on race and ethnicity are gathered by the census and its companion American Community Survey.
Among the recommendations: Add a new ethnicity category for people of Middle Eastern and North African origin, and add a question on "parental place of birth" to illuminate trends among second-generation immigrants.
Census officials are examining the possibilities and plan a million-plus-household field test to begin in the fall.
"It may seem like  is far away," Nicholas Jones, census director of racial and ethnic outreach, said in an interview. "But we have a lot of work in front of us."
Wording for the 2020 census must be submitted to Congress in 2018.
Carol Jenkins, an adjunct professor of political science at Temple University, teaches the history and significance of race and the politics of identity.
She said promoting a category for Middle East and North Africa, which researchers abbreviate as MENA, "is recognition that we are having different immigrant groups coming" to America and that the federal government and Arab-identity groups share an interest in a more precise count.
Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Philadelphia Arab American Development Corp., agreed.
"We've been working with the census for years [asking] for Arabs to be identified as a separate group," he said. "We think it's important."
Using the American Community Survey, Kreidie said, the government estimates there are 60,000 people of Arab origin in Pennsylvania. Kreidie's group said the number was closer to 180,000.
If MENA is adopted, he said, the count will be more accurate.
"Maybe we need more Arabic-language interpreters in the courts," he said as a random example of why the issue is important. "There are a lot of needs that better statistics can identify."
According to an analysis of census data, the foreign-born share of Pennsylvania's population rose from 3.1 percent in 1990 to 5.9 percent in 2011, the most recent year studied by the Immigration Policy Center, a pro-immigration nonprofit.
In New Jersey, it rose from 12.5 to 21.5 percent; in Delaware, from 3.3 to 8.4 percent.
Census officials say the final format for 2020 will include a write-in line so that, after checking the MENA box, respondents can name the appropriate country, such as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, or Tunisia, for instance. People who check "Hispanic origin" can write in Mexico, Dominican Republic, and so on.
That, Jenkins said, fits best with how most people identify themselves.
"Some Latinos don't want to be clumped together in the Hispanic category," she said. "They want to be identified by their national or ethnic group."
Beginning with the first count of the population in 1790, the census has collected critical data on the ethnic and a racial makeup of the United States.
Far from a static survey, it is a living document, with definitions and questions that - for better or worse - reflect the mores of its time.
Before adoption of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment in 1868, the majority white population maintained power and privilege by defining one slave as equal to three-fifths of a free white person.
A century later, portraits of black-white inequality that census data confirmed spurred civil rights protections.
Since 2005, the American Community Survey has provided a granular picture of America, including the growth of various immigrant groups. Immigrant-group size estimates generally have been inferred from the survey question about ancestry.
Proponents of the MENA category say many people of Middle Eastern descent don't categorize themselves simply as black or white. For them, its about ethnicity more than race.
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, a nonprofit political empowerment group in Washington, was born in Lebanon and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The institute has been active in promoting the MENA category and is heartened to see the category being tested, she said in an interview.
"We're a diverse constituency with a great deal of ethnic pride," she said. "A MENA category allows us to honor that and arrive at a better count."