Why Arab immigrants assimilate better in the United States
HE WOULD rather talk about the new Arab-American museum in Dearborn, the first of its kind in the country. But Ismael Ahmed patiently indulges questions on another topic—whether America does a better job than France of integrating Arab immigrants—even though he thinks the answers are obvious.
Mr Ahmed, the executive director of ACCESS, a social-services agency for Arab immigrants, reckons there are clear reasons why the sorts of immigrant-driven riots that have recently shocked and shamed France seem hard to imagine in Dearborn, or in other ethnic Arab communities across America. In contrast to the situation in France and in many other European countries, he points out, the children and grandchildren of Arab immigrants to America, both Muslim and Christian, climb the same ladder of education, income and advancement that other immigrant groups have scaled successfully, from Asians to the Irish.
That does not mean that most Arab-Americans, even in well-integrated third- or fourth-generation families, feel at ease these days. The new museum in Dearborn highlights many of their worries and frustrations. Its main exhibits—which look at how Arab immigrants come to America, and how they and their descendants have contributed to American life—make strenuous efforts to dispel stereotypes and point out discrimination, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. One exhibit contains a letter that was sent out to thousands of Arab immigrants after the attacks, urging them to show up for a friendly chat with the FBI.
Yet in the wake of those attacks, Dearborn’s Arab-American leaders were also able to fall back on countless ties—social, educational, commercial, political—with the wider community, to defuse tensions and put nervous Arab-Americans at ease. Many of those ties had developed naturally as people in Dearborn and other Detroit suburbs went to school and did business together. Arab-American workers and businessmen are woven into the wider economy: making car parts, running petrol stations, and trying, like the rest of the rustbelt, to branch out into new white-collar professions. In September 2001, both the chief executive of Ford, Jacques Nasser, and the president of the United Auto Workers, Stephen Yokich, were of Arab descent.
Assimilating does not always mean dispersing. As with other immigrant groups, Arab-Americans tend to live in clusters. Indeed, the 300,000 living in the Detroit metropolitan area comprise the largest concentrated Arab community outside North Africa and the Middle East. But given America’s economic opportunities, such neighbourhoods—in Dearborn, Flint, Chicago, New York and elsewhere—have little in common with the French banlieues that have erupted in recent weeks.
Immigrants from Lebanon or Iraq may head for Dearborn or the Arab section of Chicago because they have relatives there; or, when they arrive in a big city, they may gravitate towards an area with familiar foods and festivities. But that sort of clustering reflects immigrants’ choices. Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman for the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, contrasts this with France, where North African immigrants gravitate to the grim high-rises of the banlieues because there is nowhere else for them to go. Perhaps grumpy Americans should be careful what they wish for: while they whinge about the jobs that immigrants are “stealing”, France is feeling the wrath of immigrants who cannot find jobs.
copyright © 2005, The Economist