In the early part of the last century, almost 20 million people immigrated to the United States. Less than 1% of them came from the geographic region of Syria, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. (Now it's divided into the modern political entities of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Republic of Lebanon, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the State of Israel, and the Palestinian Authority).
Like their counterparts from Eastern and Southern Europe, Arab immigrants sought economic opportunities in the U.S. Many probably intended to return to their homelands with better economic status as much as they wanted to settle into a new life overseas.
Interestingly, many would-be Americans from the Middle East arrived to Ellis Island and other ports of entry only to be rebuffed due to the prevalence of maladies like trachoma, common amongst Mediterranean people. This left them two options: undergo quarantine for treatment, which was generally unaffordable, or get on another boat. So many Arabs continued their journey southward, settling throughout Latin America. Their descendents achieved enviable economic and political success. For example, recent Presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, and El Salvador have been of Arab extraction.
The approximately 150,000 Arabs who did succeed in immigrating to the United States in the early 20th century included my own ancestors. The last of them arrived in 1921, when new immigration quotas drastically reduced inflows from the Mediterranean. After the quotas were further revised in 1924, only a few hundred Arabs entered the United States annually.
My forebears, and the vast majority of Arab immigrants in that era, were Christians. For them, emigration seemed more attractive than compliance with Ottoman tax policy, which required religious minorities to pay a tribute called jizya or otherwise face military conscription. Some Catholic, others Orthodox, these immigrants followed Eastern rites—Melkite, Maronite, Syriac, Armenian—which in some cases still presented a religious barrier to cross in America. (And that barrier was even higher for the few Muslims and Jews. Brooklyn, New York and Deal, New Jersey still retain thriving Syrian Jewish communities).
Camaraderie ran high within the Arab community despite the religious differences. But there was cultural friction with American society at large. Stories passed down from Paterson, New Jersey in the 1920s recount street brawls between Irish and Syrians, whom the Irish mistakenly called Turks, which the police had to break up with fire hoses. Finally, the Syrian version of the legend goes, Dean William McNulty marched into an Irish pub one night and lectured his people: "This fighting with the Syrians has got to stop. These people come from the land where Christ himself walked—so show them some respect."
McNulty's sentiment was echoed in a poem by the celebrated Arab-American author Khalil Gibran, born in what is now Lebanon and raised a Maronite, He wrote "To Young Americans of Syrian Origin" in 1926:
"I believe that it is in you to be good citizens. And what is it to be a good citizen?
"…It is to produce wealth by labor and only by labor, and to spend less than you have produced that your children may not be dependent on the state for support when you are no more.
"It is to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, 'I am the descendant of a people that built Damascus, and Byblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.'
"It is to be proud of being an American, but it is also to be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid his gracious hand and raised His messengers.
"Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you."
In my case, it was my great-great-grandfather who sought a visa from the American consulate in Aleppo, now in northern Syria. He arrived in the United States with his family in 1921, speaking no English. As with many immigrant households in America, he and his family communicated in their native language at home and in their ethnic enclave of Central Falls, Rhode Island and later Paterson. (To this day, Paterson is a prominent center of Arab-American social and cultural activity, shared by both Christians and Muslims, who nowadays comprise roughly equal numbers within the Arab-American community nationwide).
The youngsters learned English at school. These bilingual children of Arab immigrants assimilated nationwide in a manner typical of that era, best exemplified by their service to the Armed Forces.
For example, in the 1940s both of my grandfathers joined the US Army and were sent to Europe during the Second World War. This naturally had a profound effect on their immediate families. The impact of that experience on immigrants of that era, like my great-grandparents, illustrates an important difference with their counterparts of today.
With their son fighting thousands of miles away, my paternal grandfather's parents craved news about his whereabouts and the overall progress of the war. It so happened that a gentleman in Paterson published a newspaper to serve the Arab-American community and provide them updates. He took Monday's paper in English, translated it, and published Monday's news in Arabic on Tuesday. For a while, this suited my great-grandfather, anxiously awaiting knowledge of his son's fate.
But then he began to realize: this is not good enough. My son could be dead. I can't wait a day to know what is happening.
So he taught himself to read and write in English. For him, it was a necessity. It was also a major step on the road to assimilation.
But at that time, the process for immigrants was much more clear-cut. In most cases, people had little choice. Immigrants arrived by boat, and certainly not in luxury. The weeks-long journey was difficult and expensive, but most of all time-consuming. Traveling back and forth to one's home country was essentially out of the question. Additionally, telephones and television did not exist (and when they did, they were prohibitively expensive for poor immigrants) Even exchanging letters with overseas kin took weeks if not months. So many people simply lost touch with their relatives and the lives they left behind.
Outside of grocery shopping in the local ethnic enclave, doing anything in America required some degree of familiarity with English. The electric company, the phone company, even voting ballots, didn't offer multi-lingual options. Immigrants thus resigned themselves to assimilation.
But the 21st century tells a different story. Immigrants come to the US and, like previous generations, tend to settle into ethnic enclaves where their native language has primacy. But the similarities often end there.
Immigrants arrive by airplane. Flights leave daily and, if purchased wisely, are affordably priced. The journey back and forth is easy and comfortable. It's all too simple for 21st century immigrants to keep a pied-à-terre in the homeland. Staying in touch with their relatives is simple. Everyone uses email. Phone cards allow people to call overseas for just pennies a minute—not to mention instant messenger, webcams, and Skype. Communication is cheap, if not free.
Among the first things modern-day immigrants tend to do is hook up satellite dishes, also at relatively low cost, so they can follow the news in their countries of origin, in their native language. Who needs to learn English and watch CBS, NBC, or ABC when you've got Telemundo? And even without cable or satellite, the major networks are close-captioned in Spanish.
Rewind to World War II. If al-Jazeera had existed back then, costing just a few dozen dollars per month, my great-grandfather would probably never have learned English. He could have followed the news of his soldier son in his native Arabic.
Thus the media revolution presents us with a paradox. It is actually removing the pressure on immigrants, no matter what their origin, to learn English and to assimilate into American society. For example, simple programming can now automatically translate VDARE.COM into Spanish.
Technology's impact alone is cause for concern. But there is something even more disturbing that must be honestly discussed and debated. No one would expect immigrants who become naturalized US Citizens to expunge an emotional attachment to their countries of origin (although technically they are required to do so by the Citizenship oath). But the ability to maintain such integral connection to another country can present a conflict of loyalty that does not befit America. As Congressmen Tom Tancredo stated in the latest Republican primary debate, immigrants should be expected to cut political ties to their homelands. Dual allegiance cannot be accepted.
But once we have confidence in the robustness and legality of the system, we must then turn our attention to the secondary problem of those who immigrate legally to the United States in an upright manner, but choose not to assimilate.
Even Establishment figures propose a return to English-only ballots and government documents, a focus on the teaching of American History, and an Oath of Allegiance. But they show awareness that technological change will continue to make assimilation less likely.
The next great battle, therefore, for immigration reform advocates who wish to protect as well as strengthen America, as I believe immigration has historically done, is a comprehensive effort aimed at encouraging the participation in, involvement with, and especially loyalty to, the culture, society, and civic life of the United States of America.
George Ajjan [Send him mail] is a Republican activist and member of the Arab American Institute's National Policy Council. His blog can be found at http://www.georgeajjan.com, and he is also the creator of REDchoice, an issue-based poll for the GOP's 2008 Presidential primary.