Posted on July 31, 1995 in Washington Watch
To understand America is to know that it is a never-ending experiment. It is a unique country in that it is, for the most part, a nation of immigrants. Men and women have come from the ends of the earth and, within a generation, became Americans.
The assimilation process, however, is never complete. Waves of immigrants have brought diverse groups, with varying cultures, experiences and religions; and becoming an American does not eliminate those differences. The absorption of the new immigrants into the mainstream does not erase or dilute but enriches the texture and the very meaning of America.
This openness to diversity is one of the enduring and positive qualities of the evolving American character. It was this quality which was recognized by France in 1886 when it presented the United States with a bronze statue which still adorns New York harbor. Known as the statue of liberty, engraved on the base is a poem in which the statue cries out:
“Give me your tired, your poor.
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
There is, however, another competing quality. A darker side of America.
At various times in our nation’s history, during periods of social and/or economic stress, there have been pressures to close the doors to immigrants, to shut out diversity. These periods, as ugly as they have been, have always, in the end, lost out to the open America.
America is today in the midst of a debate between its competing characters. Pressures are mounting to limit or eliminate even legal immigration. Forgetting their own roots and experiences, some descendants of immigrants speak of “America” as their sole property, and seek to deny the right of franchise to those who have come to share in it and bring new richness to the national identity.
Engaged as we are in this national debate, I had a unique opportunity to reflect on its significance recently while attending a family reunion in Utica, New York. Four generations of Zogbys gathered to celebrate almost a century in America and to reflect on our passage to this new world, our assimilation, our accomplishments and our heritage.
Our story is no different than that of thousands of other ethnic families in America. And yet even in that “commonness” can be found the special character of this country.
Both my father and mother are Zogbys from Kfartay, a small village in the mountains of Lebanon that now has many more descendants living in the U.S. than there are in the ancestral home. The Zogbys in the U.S. came largely from Kfartay, but also from Urn Ash-Shahwan, with a number of them having married descendants of Biskinta.
They began to emigrate to this country in the 1890s, with the exodus continuing through the next two decades. My mother, the first in her family to be born in this country, was raised in one of the earliest family settlements in Shennandoah – a small coal mining town in the mountains of Pennsylvania. My father was the last of his immediate family to come to the U.S. He was actually an illegal alien who came to America in 1921 at the age of 23 and joined the family in Utica – the largest of the Zogby settlements. In fact, Utica has always had a large Lebanese community, at one point numbering almost 6,000. A branch of the family also settled 1,300 miles away in Mobile, Alabama, where they prospered and spread throughout the southern United States.
As children we never tired of hearing stories of our parents’ passage to this country, of their hardships and their wondrous tales of perseverance as they made their way into American life. They, like all of their generation, were an extraordinarily and industrious group. With little capital and little or no education, they started businesses, cared for those who had not yet succeeded, and paved the way for new immigrants who came after them .
They also built institutions to protect their culture and heritage. In coming to Utica or Shennandoah or Mobile they put down roots they believed would remain. They had, in their way of thinking, moved their village and its patterns with them.
I grew up in that village: my father’s four brothers and two sisters, their spouses, their cousins and all their scores of children were my family. We celebrated together and mourned together, did business with each other and gathered frequently simply to be together. There were, of course, stresses and strains, especially as we began to change in America, but in the end there were strong bonds that held us and defined us as a family.
Over the years we have drifted physically apart. Economic pressure, social change and the very reality of America pushed us to different jobs in different states, different worlds. And four generations after that small group of Zogbys came to the U.S., we gathered again and met as an American immigrant family.
We found that four generation later that small group of a few dozen had produced a great legacy. A few thousand descendants, among them doctors, lawyers, businessmen, elected officials, professors and community leaders – all well integrated into the fabric of American life. We are all Americans, yet all of us were eating Arabic food, listening to Fayrouz and passionately discussing the issues of Middle East politics.
In our midst were new immigrant Zogbys as well, those who had come recently to enrich this country yet again. They stood as a reminder of the passage made by our parents and of the continuing pressures and problems faced by those who come to participate in the American experiment. And as thrilled as we had been as children to hear the tales of our parents’ passage to America, we thrilled one another and our children with the stories of our own accomplishments in America.
Our experiences were no different from those of other Arab Americans, be they Palestinian, Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Yemeni or Moroccan immigrants. Nor, in a real sense, are they different from the experiences and accomplishments of Asian, Latino, Irish, Italian, Greek and many other ethnic Americans. They worked hard, kept their families together, assimilated, welcomed new immigrants into their communities: the process continued.
If there is anything unique in the Arab American experience it is the degree of our extraordinary collective success. According to official U.S. census figures, Arab Americans (from all of the countries in the Arab world) have the highest percentage of self-employment, the highest percentage of professionals (Doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.), the highest percentage of college degrees, and one of the highest per capita incomes of all ethnic groups in the United States.
We have benefited from America, and America has also benefited from our presence as well. Casey Kasem, the nationally known radio and television personality, and a proud Arab American of Lebanese descent, is fond of pointing out (as he did recently in a special Arab American Institute brochure) the famous Arab Americans who have made significant contributions to American life. Among the most notable are:
Â· Helen Thomas, Dean of the White House Press corps, who has covered the White House since it was occupied by John F. Kennedy;
Â· Farouk el-Baz, a geologist who helped plan all the Apollo moon landings and pioneered the use of space photography to study the earth
Â· The late Danny Thomas, a well known entertainer who founded the nationally respected St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital;
Â· Dr. Michael Debaky, a surgeon who invented the heart pump which saves thousands of lives each year.
Where, one might ask, would American life be if the ancestors of the extraordinary people had not immigrated?
That is why the current debate on immigration in the U.S. is so troubling. The proposals to cut legal immigration by 33% or to eliminate work permits for skilled workers in specialty professions now being bandied about by politicians are short-sighted and wrong-headed. To argue, as some do, that the current diversity mix of new immigrants is dangerous because it is only 18% European and therefore “threatens the ethnicity of America” is foolish at best, racist at worst. There simply is no single American ethnicity: America is a rich mosaic of diverse ethnicities.
It is tragic that this dark side of America emerges time and again. It is ironic that one of the leading proponents of ending immigration is presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, himself the descendant of Irish immigrants. For him to call for closing the doors of America, when just a few generations ago doors were closed to his ancestors (“no Irish welcome” was a commonplace phrase in the U.S. at the turn of the century) is almost absurd.
It is tragic and ironic, but unfortunately it is also expected in times of economic stress that the scape-goating of “foreigners” will be the recourse of some.
And yet the side of America that supports diversity and welcomes immigrants is fighting back. A coalition of 150 groups has coalesced to challenge the restrictive proposals of those seeking to close America’s doors. And there are champions, both Republicans and Democrats, in the Senate and the Congress who will fight with us.
In the end, despite the possibility of a short-term setback, we will win, the doors will stay open. And the Zogbys and the tens of thousands of other ethnic families who make up America will continue to grow, to enrich the country and be replenished each generation with new immigrants who will themselves become Americans – because, in the best sense, that is what America is about.
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