During the past half-century, 59 million immigrants have moved to the United States, making it the No. 1 immigrant destination on the planet.
Much of the influx is a result of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened America’s doors to all nationalities on a roughly equal basis and ended the infamous national origins quota system, under which immigrants from Northern and Western Europe were heavily advantaged, and people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East were mostly shut out. The people who moved here after the 1965 act made the United States a truly multicultural nation.
The immigrant inflow has altered the U.S. labor market, reshaped the political landscape and prompted new consideration of what it actually means to be American, given how the country’s European character is diminishing in relative importance. By 2015, immigrants constituted about 14 percent of the U.S. population, a level not seen since the major immigrant inflows of the early 20th century.
An Asian-American Politician
Few places in the United States have felt the impact of immigration as dramatically as Fairfax County in Virginia, on the edge of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. In 1970, less than 3 percent of the county population was foreign-born. By 2010, the immigrant share had risen to nearly 30 percent, and immigrants were playing prominent roles in the county’s civic and private institutions.
The county was partially represented in the Virginia House of Delegates by an immigrant from South Korea, Mark Keam, the first Asian-American immigrant elected to the Legislature in its 400-year history. Keam moved with his parents to the United States at age 14, settling first in Southern California. After graduating from law school, Keam moved to the D.C. area and became involved in politics, inspired by Jesse Jackson’s vision of a “Rainbow Coalition” of immigrants, minorities and other marginalized constituencies.
Keam married Alex Seong, a Korean immigrant like himself, though one who was raised in a more insular environment.
“We ate Korean food all the time, watched Korean TV, did everything Korean, spoke Korean,” she says.
Her parents — who worked for low wages in a chicken processing plant in southern Maryland — hadn’t encouraged Alex and her three brothers to think of America as their home.
But the man she married had a different view. He said Korean-Americans had every right to be involved, to compete for office and represent their people. And Alex’s father was impressed.
“When he met Mark and saw what good he could do for our community and for America, he just really was proud, and he really wanted to support him … (to) go as far as he could,” she says.
But just how far is that? Immigrants compete with other workers, sometimes other minorities, for jobs and resources. Keam witnessed the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, when many Korean-owned stores were destroyed in a frenzy of rioting and looting in Latino, African-American and Asian neighborhoods.
The riots have been a formative experience for Keam.
“It was from helplessly watching fellow minorities rise up against us,” he wrote in a commentary a decade later, “that Korean Americans finally learned the value of building bridges with others in America.”
Keam launched his own political career in 2009 and was elected that year to the Virginia Legislature, gaining strong support from the burgeoning Asian-American population in Fairfax County.
He has been re-elected twice and now sees himself as representing a broader constituency, including immigrants of other nationalities, whom he sees as sharing a common bond.
“They made a decision, individually or as families, that their lives back home were too miserable for them to endure,” Keam says. “All of us, we came here for that one mission, which is we want to have a free life and a better life than where we came from.”
When he first ran for office, Keam’s opponent in his party primary was another immigrant, Esam Omeish, a Muslim from Libya with his own exceptional story.
A Lay Muslim Preacher
In every period of high immigration to the United States, some group has encountered prejudice and hostility. In the 18th century, Irish immigrants were scorned. In later years, Jews and Italians were marginalized. In the 21st century, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslim immigrants found themselves under suspicion.
At the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in northern Virginia, the Friday sermons often touch on conditions faced by American Muslims, especially when they are led by Omeish, a surgeon at a nearby hospital and frequent guest preacher at the mosque.
“In this season of elections,” Omeish noted during a recent service, “bigotry and hatred for Islam has become rampant.”
Without naming names, he alluded to the arrest of a 14-year-old Muslim youth from Texas who was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school that his teachers mistook for a bomb, and he cited Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for failing to rebuke a voter who said Muslims are “a problem in this country.”
But Omeish, who immigrated to America at age 15 from Libya and became a naturalized U.S. citizen, chose not to criticize his adopted country. Instead, he said it was up to the Muslim community to defend themselves against calumny.
“It will take us, the Muslims in America, to be the ones that stand for what Islam stands for,” he said.
Though working long hours as a general surgeon, Omeish has long been active in civic and political affairs in Fairfax County. When he ran against Keam in 2009, he emphasized his commitment to American values.
“The main reason why I love America more than anything else and consider it to be home, for me and for my children, is not just because I’ve lived here for as long as I have,” he says. “It’s more because it nurtures what I believe defines me as an individual, which is my Islam.”
This mainly Christian country nurtures his Islam, Omeish argues, because it allows people to pursue their own identities.
Omeish started U.S. high school speaking barely any English but graduated on time, with high honors. He thanks his teachers and credits his principal for supporting his push for a Muslim student group. After high school he went to Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, where one of his first courses was called “The Problem of God.”
“I’m like, ‘What the heck?'” he recalls. “And the professor was a Jesuit who was very much questioning his own faith.”
It was that support for free thinking that sold Omeish on America. The woman he married is also a devout Muslim, also from Libya. Their two daughters, now in college, are also observant, also free thinkers.
Omeish points out that in America his daughters have the freedom to express their opinions; that’s not the case in many other countries.
In his recent sermon at Dar Al-Hijrah, Omeish complains about candidates who say bad things about Islam, but argues that such comments are not so much anti-Muslim as anti-American.
“It’s not just what we worry about as a community. It is about fundamentally what this country is. We’re proud Americans,” he tells his fellow worshippers, “who understand what America is about.”
Mark Keam and his wife, Alex, are both lawyers, with successful professional careers. Esam Omeish is a general surgeon. His wife, Badria, has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and teaches at a local community college. All are leaders in their immigrant communities.
But in the 1980s — when Keam and Omeish arrived in the United States — most immigrants had a high school education or less, and many lived in poverty.
A Persevering Family
Alvaro Alarcon works as a gang prevention counselor at Northern Virginia Family Services, a social service agency in Fairfax County that served the low-income immigrant community. His own experience growing up in a gang-plagued Fairfax County neighborhood enables him to relate to his clients.
Alvaro arrived in the U.S. with his parents from Bolivia when he was 5, and for several years his family struggled in ways that are familiar to many immigrant families. His father, Victor, and mother, Rhina, decided to leave Bolivia in the early 1980s during a period of hyperinflation, when people often stood in line for hours to buy bread and milk. Rhina’s sister lived in northern Virginia; except for her, the Alarcon family had no connections in America.
“We decided to change our lives, change everything, leave everything behind,” says Victor. He came first, alone, and moved in with his with sister-in-law and her husband.
“I worked every day, often for pennies,” he recalls.
When Rhina joined him, they looked for a place of their own, despite having almost no savings. Good fortune came when Victor ran into a childhood friend from Bolivia who offered a corner of the small apartment he shared with his wife.
“It was maybe 4 feet to 10 feet,” Victor recalls, “just a little place to put a bed and nothing else. But … my friend opened his house to us when we most needed it.”
Rhina remained miserable, largely because she had left her two sons behind with her mother when she joined Victor in the U.S.
“Whenever we sat down to eat, every single time, she was crying,” Victor says. “[She said] ‘I think about my kids, all the time.'”
Years later, as a counselor, their son Alvaro would find that family separation is a major reason for adjustment problems in immigrant communities; overcrowding is another. The Alarcon experience in the United States was not atypical.
The family nevertheless persevered. Learning English was a chore, but they kept at it. They badgered school administrators to make sure their sons got the attention they needed. Rhina worked as a housekeeper in a nursing home. Victor learned new skills, turning to an American institution: the public library.
“For me the library was a second house,” Victor says. “Everything that I needed to learn about anything, I [found in] the library. I learned to fix cars, any at all. I can do anything in the house — electrical, A/C, plumbing, water heating.”
Victor worked hard at a series of jobs in restaurants and retail, and he and Rhina bought a house and made sure their boys got an education. Theirs is not a rags-to-riches story, but they were upwardly mobile, and they identified with the American experience.
Alvaro, their second-born, says he picked up more than academic skills from his upbringing in Fairfax County, where three out of 10 residents are foreign-born and his classmates come from the Middle East, Asia and other Central American countries.
“I’ve gotten to experience not only new languages and new cultures, but new foods, new ways of thinking that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to if I’d stayed in Bolivia,” he says.
Alvaro now identifies himself as an American, but hyphenated — a “Latino-American.” In high school, his closest friends were a boy from Pakistan and a boy from South Korea. Between them, they share a new identity, even with their own languages and cultures.
“It’s Latino-American, Pakistani-American, Korean-American,” he explains. “That’s what we have in connection, the American part. But we have this little thing extra that makes us individuals.”