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Immigrants

Departure
The option of last resort for Middle Eastern Americans

Nader Habibi
July 7, 2004
iranian.com

America is the land of immigrants. Throughout its existence people from all parts of the world have come to the shores of this country and with very few exceptions, those who have come in, have found a way to stay and eventually assimilate. Despite being involved in many international conflicts and periodic ethnic/racial tensions, the United States has rarely, if ever, engaged in mass deportation of any ethnic/immigrant group.(1)

Most new immigrant groups have faced some degree of prejudice and rejection before eventually being accepted by others. Almost all newcomers have preferred to endure the hardships of prejudice and discrimination rather than return to their countries of origin. After slavery was abolished in nineteenth century, a small group of former slaves returned to Africa and settled in an area that is now called Liberia. However, the majority of former slaves stayed in the United States despite facing overt racism up until the civil rights movement of 1960s.

Unfortunately, the continuing and growing tensions between the United States and Middle Eastern countries might lead to voluntary departure or involuntary deportation of many, first and second generation Middle Eastern immigrants. For many people this concept might seem remote and unthinkable. However, the September 11 attacks and U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan have significantly increased the social and political risk factors that confront Middle Eastern Americans. These risk factors include higher likelihood of discrimination, social alienation and falling victim to hate crimes.

These risk factors have intensified in recent years but so far they have not reached such levels that would lead to mass exodus. Some foreign students from Arab countries and Pakistan have returned home after 9/11. The established immigrants and their offspring, on the other hand, have stayed and are gradually adopting to their declining social status. The situation might, however, change for the worse if al-Qaeda manages to carry out another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. It might also change if U.S. military involvement in the Middle East undergoes a significant escalation and results in a sharp increase in daily U.S. casualties. Any of these unexpected developments can increase the level of public anger towards people of Middle Eastern origin.

Whether or not the Middle Eastern Americans should be worried about leaving the U.S. for another country depends on the likelihood of these unexpected events that could trigger a severe backlash. However, before discussing the likelihood of each event lets think about how a typical immigrant might decide on whether to stay or move to another country.

For majority of immigrants the most important motivation for coming to the United States is the economic prosperity and the relatively higher standard of living that is available to them in the United States. An immigrant will choose to leave the U.S. if the quality life that he can expect in the best country that is open to him, will be better than what he can expect in the United States. The most important factors that affect a person's quality of life are, a: material well being (wealth, income, healthcare, job opportunities,...), b: spiritual well being (dignity, honor, liberty, sense of belonging, social respect, identification with the objectives and moral values of the country and the community of residence), and c: security and safety.

Often an individual makes a trade off between these factors by giving up a little of one for sake of having more of the others. For example, a high ranking government official who is considered part of the elite in his original homeland will accept a low status ordinary job as an immigrant in another country because he prefers the social environment of the second country. However, each individual has a minimum threshold for each of these factors that he cannot do without. If an immigrant finds himself in a situation where his life is in danger he might choose to leave regardless of the higher standard of material well being that he can enjoy in the United States. Similarly an immigrant who still loves his motherland might leave the United States if he feels that the United States is exploiting and humiliating his country of birth. This feeling might be so strong that it might outweigh all the positive qualities of life that he enjoys in here.

The backlash from September 11 attacks and the rising tensions between the U.S. and Middle Eastern countries ever since, have had an adverse effect on all three aspects of the Middle Eastern Americans' quality of life. The incidents of economic discrimination have increased and Middle Easterners have fewer opportunities for employment and promotion. The changing attitude of the society towards Middle Easterners has reduced their spiritual and emotional well being as well. They feel more isolated than before. Many also find themselves at odds with U.S. foreign policy towards Middle East. Safety became an issue for Middle Easterners in the weeks immediately after September 11 but the incidents of life threatening hate crimes have diminished significantly ever since. Despite all these negative factors, a significant majority of Middle Eastern Americans are staying in the United States because the quality of life in the U.S. is still far better than most Middle Eastern countries.
The Risk Factors.

While we all hope for the best it is important to think about undesirable developments and prepare some contingency plans just in case. We all hope that the tensions between the U.S. and Middle East will gradually diminish over time and the current negative attitudes towards Middle Eastern Americans will fade away. Yet we must all be aware that these tensions might get worse and lead to more violence all over the world. Therefore, it is important for Middle Eastern Americans to think about their safety and economic security in the event of another major backlash. While our first priority must be to protect ourselves without leaving the country that we have made our home, we must also think about temporary or permanent departure as the options of last resort.

Most political analysts agree that, unfortunately, the current tensions between the U.S. and the Middle Eastern countries are not going to end anytime soon. The Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved. The U.S. involvement in Iraq might drag on for several years. The United States is likely to intervene in Saudi Arabia if that country sinks into a civil war. The U.S. troops still face resistance in Afghanistan and anti-Americanism is rampant in Pakistan. And last but not least, the U.S. and Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear programs might lead to a military confrontation. (2)

All of these factors increase the likelihood of a major terrorist attack against the United States and the inevitable backlash against Middle Eastern Americans. It is fair to say that Middle Eastern Americans will have to live in the shadow of such a backlash for a considerable period of time. In addition to a sharp increase in hate crimes, a second terror attack is likely to cause a series of legal measures against suspect ethnic groups. Some right wing public commentators have even gone as far as advocating mass expulsion of Arab and Muslim immigrants in the event of another terror attack.

Even in the absence of a second terror attack, the social attitudes towards Middle Easterners might turn more negative overtime as a result of continuing hostilities in U.S. relations with Middle Eastern countries. The rising prejudice and declining socioeconomic opportunities might force some individuals to think about leaving the United States. In those cases, when there is no immediate threat, an individual has more time to choose a new country and plan his departure.

Practical Steps and Contingency Plans
Here are a few suggestions for departure planning. Obviously departure is the last and the least desirable option on any immigrant's list. It is important, however, to plan ahead if unexpected events force an individual to choose this option. Every Middle Easterner must ask himself the following question: If I had to leave the United States suddenly where will I go and how will I organize my relocation.

Where to go: So the first step is to decide about where to go if and when relocation becomes inevitable. The country of origin is one option but some people might prefer to move to another advanced Western country such as Canada or Australia. Such individuals must learn about the requirements for migration to their country of choice in advance. All of these countries have strict requirements for age, skill and minimum financial resources and they only accept a limited number of new immigrants each year.

Even if immigration to these advanced countries is possible under normal conditions, it might become more difficult during an international crisis. For example if the backlash from a second terror attack forces thousands of Middle Easterners to escape to Canada, Canadian authorities are likely to close their borders to this flood of would-be immigrants. Even those Middle Easterners who are Citizens of the United States might be unable to cross into Canada under extraordinary circumstances. Therefore it is essential to plan ahead and prepare the logistics of relocation.

Another option is to identify the developing countries that have reached a high stage of development and have a strong demand for skilled labor. Such countries could be found in Latin America, Asia and the small oil-exporting Sheikhdoms of Persian Gulf.

Financial precautions: Unexpected relocation to another country could lead to a large financial loss. For most households the most important financial asset is their house and selling a house over a short period of time will often be to the seller's disadvantage. If you happen to sell your house when many people in a similar situation are also trying to sell, the market price could drop below normal conditions. During the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran many people were trying to sell their properties and leave the country as soon as possible. Consequently the property prices in affluent neighborhoods fell and forced many sellers to accept large losses. It is important to think ahead about what to do with your properties if you have to leave suddenly.

Preparation for any kind of disaster requires a minimum amount of liquidity. If a severe backlash forces you to leave the country immediately you must have enough cash to pay for your move. I recommend maintaining a liquidity of at least $5,000 per member of the household. This means that a family of four must maintain at least $20,000 dollars in cash or other liquid assets such as interest paying deposits and bonds. This should be enough to pay for transport and day-to-day expenses of the family for at least two-months in most countries of the world.

After choosing a destination, individuals with high levels of income and wealth can invest a portion of their wealth in the selected country and even purchase a rental property. These investments help smooth the financial burden of relocation if it ever becomes necessary. They also will make it easier to obtain a residency visa.

Long-term Career Planning: The risk of relocation for Middle Eastern Americans is a long term risk. It is long-term because, as was mentioned earlier, the current conflicts between the United States and Middle East might drag on for one or two decades. Therefore those individuals that are currently in college or in early years of their careers, must concentrate on kinds of skills that are useful in both the United States and other parts of the world. Based on this criterion, technical fields such as engineering, information technology and medicine are better options than law and U.S. literature, which are not in demand outside the United States.

Emotional Preparation: Even when a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, is totally unpredictable, awareness of its likelihood and educational discussions about how one must cope with the aftermath will help prepare the individuals and increase their emotional resilience once it happens. As a result of this awareness, a person is better prepared to protect himself and cope with the consequences. In a similar manner, it will be helpful to have discussions within each family and among Middle Eastern Americans about coping with an unexpected backlash and thinking about the process of relocation as the option of last resort.

We must be careful that such discussions do not lead to unnecessary anxiety. The first and foremost advice to each immigrant is to fully integrate and be an active member of his new community. The question of relocation must be raised as a precautionary option that everyone hopes will never be necessary. Perhaps the following sentence can best describe the notion of emotional preparation: Live every day as if you are going to live in the United States forever, but live every day with the awareness that you might have to leave the United States unexpectedly and with a short notice.

Author
Nader Habibi is an economist and lives near Philadelphia.

Notes
1) In 1920s concern about spread of communism and explosion of a bomb in New York City led to the deportation of several European artists and intellectuals. The best-known figure to be deported was Charlie Chaplin.

2) An attack on Iran's nuclear facilities should be of particular concern to Iranian-Americans. The attack itself will not cause a backlash against Middle Eastern Americans. However, such an attack will most likely lead to a series of retaliatory strikes by Iranians against U.S. targets and might even cause U.S. casualties. It is these retaliatory strikes that could generate a strong backlash against Iranian-Americans.

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