Middle East migrants give US a boost

Middle East migrants give US a boost

A little over a week ago, Stanford University mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani died aged 40 after a battle with cancer. In that short lifetime, she accomplished more than most of us ever will. Mirzakhani was one of the world's greatest mathematicians -- a recipient of the Fields Medal, maths' highest honour.

Mirzakhani's career was a triumph for the US university system and American scientific prowess. But Mirzakhani was born and raised in Iran. She's proof of the advantage immigration gives the US.

Americans generally support immigration. But immigrants from the Middle East tend to be viewed less favourably than those who hail from other regions:

The ratio of negative-to-positive opinions of Middle Eastern immigrants is about 2-to-1. What's more, President Donald Trump campaigned and won on a promise to ban Muslim immigrants.

This outbreak of fear is likely due to geopolitical factors -- the Sept 11 attacks, wars in the Middle East, Islamist terrorism in Europe and the US and the rise of the Islamic State. Some on the American right believe the West is locked in a clash of civilisations with Middle Eastern Islam.

These fears echo 19th-century worries about Catholic immigration. In the 1800s, nativist agitators warned that an influx of Catholics, mostly from Ireland and Germany, threatened to destroy the American way of life. Of course, nothing of the sort happened -- Irish and German immigrants simply became a part of the American economic and social fabric.

There seems little reason to expect Middle Eastern immigrants will turn out differently. In economic terms, most are already doing well: This also is true of Muslim Americans specifically -- their income numbers are extremely similar to those of Catholic Americans, which are very close to the US national average. There are some exceptions. Iraqi Americans tend to be poorer than most, probably reflecting the influx of war refugees from the US invasion of that country.

But by and large, Middle Eastern immigrants are flourishing. The reason is that, like Asia and Africa, the Middle East tends to send its better-educated, more entrepreneurial types to the US Muslim Americans, for example, tend to have more schooling than Catholic or evangelical Protestant Americans, and about the same level as mainline Protestants.

Those statistics don't do justice to the individual contributions that Middle Eastern Americans have made. Mirzakhani was a rare genius, but her success was far from an isolated example.

Everyone knows that Steve Jobs, perhaps the most revered and successful entrepreneur in recent American history, was the son of a Muslim Syrian father. Many innovative US companies have been started by folks of Middle Eastern extraction. Arash Ferdowsi, an Iranian American, co-founded Dropbox Inc, the web-file hosting service, and Bob Miner, also of Iranian descent, co-founded Oracle Corp. Next time you bid on an auction on eBay Inc, thank Pierre Omidyar, a French native of Iranian descent. And next time you get a date on Tinder, thank co-founder Sean Rad, another Iranian American. If you've ever made copies at Kinko's, thank Arab American Paul Orfalea. And if you or your kids enjoy the video games World of Warcraft or Overwatch, thank Egyptian American Allen Adham.

Like Irish, German, Italian or Russian immigrants in previous centuries, Middle Easterners hail from a region that is unfamiliar to most Americans. And like Catholic and Jewish immigrants before them, Muslim-Americans follow a religion that may seem strange and frightening to many. But like those earlier waves of newcomers, Middle Easterners will eventually become just another bunch of regular Americans. Already, there is clear evidence that Muslim Americans, for example, are rapidly becoming more liberal and secular, just like their Christian and Jewish predecessors. American society is simply much better than Europe at integrating newcomers into its social fabric and national polity. This is no surprise, since the US has been a nation of immigrants since the start.

The backlash against Middle Eastern immigrants in the US is an overreaction to global events. The reality looks headed for the same happy ending that has defined previous groups of new Americans. This doesn't mean every Middle Easterner who wants entry should be granted it -- vetting is important, and those who seem like a security risk of course shouldn't be admitted. But cutting off the flow of hard-working, talented, entrepreneurial individuals from the Middle East, as some are now trying to do, would be a significant self-inflicted wound.  (BLOOM­BERG VIEW)


Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for a number of finance and business publications.

Noah Smith

Assistant professor

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for a number of finance and business publications.

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