"The great social adventure of America": What the country could learn from Fairfax County, Virginia's immigration experience

Fairfax County had its problems, but people of widely varying backgrounds generally learned to fit in

Published September 13, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href='https://secure.istockphoto.com/profile/juanmonino'>Juanmonino</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>/Salon)
(Juanmonino via iStock/Salon)


The foreign-born newcomers who settled in Fairfax County arrived with hopes and expectations that reflected the various circumstances driving their migrations. America came to mean different things to each of them, depending on the mind-sets they brought and the character of their immigration experience. Marta Quintanilla, coming from El Salvador, thought her life in America would be easier than it turned out to be. “It doesn’t offer money,” she said speaking more than twenty years after her arrival. “That’s a lie. You have to work hard to live here.” But after a childhood of poverty and violence, she found security in America, and that was what mattered most. “I come home from work. I park my car in the parking lot. I come into my apartment and lock the door, and I see my children sleeping,” she says. “That’s what America has given me. I can sleep peacefully here and not think somebody is going to come in the night. You just have to follow the rules. If I don’t hang around with the gangs, nothing is going to happen to me.”

For Un Joung Kim’s parents, America was the place where they could be assured of the best treatment for their daughter’s cerebral palsy. They had to spend several years in Argentina en route, but America was where they wanted to be. Victor Alarcón headed to the United States for the same reason his sister-in-law had come, because it offered someone with energy and initiative the chance to prosper. Abdul Shaheed Khan of Pakistan wanted to give his children the best education possible. When Esam Omeish, Alex Seong, Mark Keam, and their parents came to America, they found a country far less confining than the worlds they left behind, with more freedom and openness. Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of immigration in Washington, encountered a wide variety of immigrant experiences in her years of government service and saw a common theme. “Ultimately, it’s a story of mobility,” she recalled.

“People have different definitions of the American dream, but I think what runs through them all is the idea that there is an opportunity here through hard work to have a better life, for your children if not for yourself, and that it’s worth the sacrifice. Wherever you came from, if you did the same amount of work, your children would be destined to follow in your footsteps. Here, they can be in a better place.”

America offered big advantages over other countries, but in return the immigrants took on obligations. In some cases, it took a while to figure out exactly what was required of them. Alex Seong’s mother used to tell her to keep a low profile and not make trouble. “Just be good people,” she would say. “We came to this country; it’s not our country. We are benefiting from the graciousness of this country, so we need to be the best people we can be.” The problem with such advice is that it did not leave Alex feeling wholly American. Not until she moved to Fairfax and found herself surrounded by other people with varied backgrounds did she lose the self-consciousness she had felt as a child in rural Maryland.

Fairfax County, like other areas where immigrants settled in large numbers in the last years of the twentieth century, was a place where people of widely varying backgrounds could fit in. Un Joung Kim set out immediately to create a new American identity for herself. When her U.S. classmates and teachers tried to say “Un Joung,” it always came out as “Onion,” so she decided she needed a new name, just as Mark Keam and Alex Seong and other Korean youth had done. She heard of other kids called “Kim” and tried that for a while, but then she was Kim Kim, and again she got teased. Next she called herself “Cindy,” a name many other Korean girls had taken, and for several years she was known as Cindy Kim. Still, she was not satisfied. “I wanted something unique,” she recalled,“some name no one else had.” One day, enchanted by a high school visit to an archaeological museum, she came up with Amber, after the fossil gem.“I thought,‘Amber sounds nice,’” she said.“ ‘Amber is going to be my name.’” So she went through yet another name change, and when she became an American citizen at the age of eighteen, her U.S. passport identified her officially as Amber Kim. The ease with which she chose new names and discarded others came from her immigrant experience; she had been straddling cultures her whole life.

Diversity in the student population in Fairfax County schools did produce conflict, but it also meant that youth became comfortable around classmates from other ethnic backgrounds. Amber Kim’s boyfriend was from Peru. Álvaro Alarcón’s best friend was Pakistani, and Álvaro ultimately married a girl from Jamaica. It seemed there was something about living in multicultural America that fostered more tolerant attitudes, if not in the first immigrant generation, then certainly in the second. A 2013 study by the Anti-Defamation League found that while 36 percent of Hispanic Americans born outside the United States harbored anti-Semitic views, the number dropped to 14 percent among those who were raised in the United States.

For Esam Omeish and his family, the challenge was to balance their Muslim faith with the responsibilities of American citizenship.They had the right to practice Islam freely and expect their religion to be respected, but they also had to recognize that America was organized on secular principles. Rather than separate from secular institutions, the Omeish family embraced them, especially when they reinforced their own Islamic values. When her daughters, Abrar and Anwar, transferred from an Islamic academy to Fairfax County public schools, Badria Omeish was concerned about it being difficult for them to meet new girls and decided to get them involved in Girl Scouts. She even became a troop leader. Abrar ultimately became a national delegate to the Girl Scout Council. “Girl Scout themes correlate with my faith,” she told an interfaith group at the National Cathedral in May 2012. Citing the Girl Scout Law, which obliges them, among other things, to “make the world a better place and be a sister to every Girl Scout,” Abrar then quoted a verse from the Quran: “O, mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that you may despise each other.” As a high school sophomore, she cofounded a mentoring and tutoring program for low-income students, for which she was named a “Northern Virginian of the Year” in 2013.

Anwar Omeish, meanwhile, was inclined in a more activist direction. “It’s impossible to grow up Muslim American and not have a political life,” she often said. As a seven-year-old girl, she was asked to read an excerpt of a Martin Luther King speech on the Oprah Winfrey show. As a high school student, she wrote a long essay titled “I Found Him in the Ballot Box,” tying together her observations of the Arab Spring, the Libyan revolution, Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, and Libyan exiles voting in their first free elections in more than four decades. On her Facebook page she described herself as “an individual, committed to social justice, inspired & frustrated & impassioned by everything. Everything is political. To think otherwise is a luxury. If you don’t stand for some thing, you will fall for everything.” Both she and her sister were top students in their schools. Abrar went to Yale, Anwar to Harvard.

Esam Omeish himself spent years reconciling the teachings of Islam, even as they apply to politics, with the American creed and U.S. political culture. Where there were contradictions, such as in the precise definition of human rights and the application of shariah law, he made clear in his sermons and speeches that in the United States the American approach necessarily trumped Islamist orthodoxy. With the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East, Omeish turned his attention back to his native Libya, becoming a strong advocate for U.S. support of the anti-Qaddafi rebels. Esam was director of the Libyan Emergency Task Force, and the Omeishes organized a loose group of Libyan American doctors, businesspeople, and housewives who arranged for medical aid convoys, met with U.S. politicians, and held rallies and vigils in support of the Libyan revolution. In August, as rebel forces battled Qaddafi’s remaining troops, Esam headed to Libya with $150,000 worth of surgical equipment and set up an emergency trauma center through the International Medical Corps at a hospital in Yefren, close to the zone of fighting. He spent three weeks treating devastating military injuries under primitive conditions. “I’m mirroring my passion about America in Libya,” he said. He never reconsidered his earlier conclusion that Libya would never be home for him again, but that did not preclude him from having a role there. “Something in me longs to see Libya become like America,” he said.

Most of the shops along Little River Turnpike on the eastern edge of Fairfax County have long been owned by Koreans, but the surrounding neighborhoods in recent years have attracted mostly Hispanic immigrants, and many of the people employed in the shops are Latinos. Ever enterprising, the Korean merchants realized their customer base was changing, so they adapted. One bakery that used to specialize in Korean sweets became Panadería Latina and switched to selling churros and pan dulce and tres leches cakes. The Korean owner was unfamiliar with the treats, but he let his Hispanic employees bake the pastries they knew would sell. The Korean barber down the street hung a sign in his window that promised, “Se Habla Español,” and he hired Spanish-speaking employees to help him. The acculturation that took place along that stretch of Little River Turnpike was less from Korean to American than from Korean to Hispanic; more precisely, it was from Korean to a cultural mix that in an age of immigration was itself a new kind of American.

With the immigrant population dispersed throughout the county and no single group dominating, and with a progressive and well-resourced county government, Fairfax generally represented an example of successful immigrant integration. Still, there were exceptions to that pattern in some Fairfax immigrant neighborhoods, with gang violence, organized crime, and human trafficking.

Nationally, the story is also mixed. Growing inequality, racial alienation, and segmented acculturation—with immigrants integrated only within social class boundaries—are also realities. Whether the United States will always offer immigrants the same promise of upward mobility that it has in the past is becoming debatable.

One of the most alarming examples of failed acculturation was the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, the Chechen immigrants who were found to have planted the bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April 2013. When it became apparent that Tamerlan and his brother, Dzhokhar, were the culprits, a stream of their friends, neighbors, and former classmates came forward to say how they had seemed to be relatively happy and well integrated into American society. Alan Cullison, a Wall Street Journal reporter who knew Tamerlan, the older brother, recalled that he was an amateur boxer with big dreams. “He planned to box for the U.S. Olympic Team one day,” Cullison wrote, “and he wanted to earn a degree, perhaps at Harvard or MIT and to hold a full-time job at the same time, so he could buy a house and a car.”

Dzhokhar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had seemed even more impressive. “Whether we were playing basketball or getting lunch, Dzhokhar never gave me a bad vibe,” wrote a former classmate at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, Zolan Kanno-Youngs.“The Dzhokhar I knew was a young man who spent all night looking in his car for a new phone I clumsily lost. He left work early just to help me retrace my steps.” Zolan’s aunt, NPR host Robin Young, noted in a radio commentary how hard it was for people to hear that Dzhokhar was a popular kid. “What he’s accused of,” she said,“is monstrous. Evil. We want the perpetrator to fit the narrative of a loner, an outcast, an unassimilated immigrant. What Zolan did was write a new narrative, a more frightening one.”

The Tsarnaev case showed that “assimilation” is not always as successful a process as it may appear on the surface. President Obama himself admitted to questions that he could not answer. “Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?” he asked in a speech to the nation four days after the bombings. For the advocates of more restricted immigration, the Tsarnaev story underscored their criticisms of the immigration system in the United States. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, raised the Tsarnaev case during testimony at a Senate hearing on immigration reform. “What does it say about our broken patriotic assimilation system,” he asked, “that legal, relatively privileged immigrant young people became so alienated that they engaged in this kind of mass murder against Americans?”

Up to that point, the debate in Washington over immigration policy had focused mainly on what should be done about people who were coming into the country illegally, but conservative commentator Ann Coulter cited the Boston bombings in making a larger argument. “The problem isn’t just illegal immigration,” she wrote in one of her typically provocative newspaper columns. “It’s legal immigration, too.” She even used the story of the Tsarnaev brothers to attack the nondiscriminatory premise of the 1965 immigration act. “My thought is, maybe we should consider admitting immigrants who can succeed in America, rather than deadbeats,” she wrote. “But we’re not allowed to ‘discriminate’ in favor of immigrants who would be good for America. Instead of helping America, our immigration policies are designed to help other countries solve their internal problems by shipping their losers to us. . . . Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 Immigration Act so dramatically altered the kinds of immigrants America admits that, since 1969, about 85 percent of legal immigrants have come from the Third World. They bring Third World levels of poverty, fertility, illegitimacy and domestic violence with them. When they can’t make it in America, they simply go on welfare and sometimes strike out at Americans.”

As more details of the Tsarnaev brothers’ lives became known, the evidence of their disaffection became more compelling. A five-month Boston Globe investigation led the Globe journalists to conclude that the Tsarnaev family had “imploded” within ten years after they arrived in America from their native Dagestan, with “each member marked by some personal failure within a culture they never fully understood or adapted to. . . . [As] the stress of life in their adopted country began to take its toll, the family turned to religion.” Tamerlan spent more and more time on radical websites promoting violent jihad, and he shared them with his brother. They grew increasingly alienated, angry, and determined to cause pain. Acculturation, much less assimilation, never fully occurred.

Whether their case showed that the entire assimilation system in America was “broken,” however, is another question. On the night they were cornered by the Boston police, the Tsarnaev brothers seized a car, holding the driver hostage. The man was able to escape and found refuge at a gas station, where the clerk called 911 and summoned the police. As it turned out, both the carjacking victim and the gas station clerk were themselves immigrants. The driver was from China, and the clerk, Tarek Ahmed, was from Egypt, and he was Muslim. “I love this country,” he told a New York Times reporter. “My heart goes out to everybody who is affected by this. ”Two immigrant brothers had carried out an act of unspeakable violence, but it was two other foreign-born residents who helped to bring an end to the terrorism.

Sweeping generalizations about how well or poorly immigrants—Muslim immigrants in particular—are integrated in American society are unfounded. The 2010 U.S. Religion Census indicated that the number of Muslims in the United States more than doubled in the decade after the 9/11 attacks, precisely the period when counterterrorism policies were so controversial. Of the Muslim population in the United States in 2001, about one in four had immigrated in the previous ten years, and they seemed to be relatively happy. A 2011 Pew survey found 82 percent of U.S. Muslims expressing satisfaction with their American lives. Compared to the rest of the population, more than twice as many Muslims approved of “the way things are going” in the country.

For all its faults, the United States still represented opportunity and promise to people around the world. Gallup surveys in more than 150 countries over the last decade have shown that the United States is far and away the favored destination among those considering migration. The most recent survey projected that 138 million people worldwide would like to move permanently to the United States, more than three times the number who would choose the United Kingdom, the second most favored destination.

A hundred years ago, a young Harvard graduate by the name of Walter Lippmann wrote a book he called A Preface to Politics, the first of what would be many influential works of social and political criticism. Among his subjects was the challenge that immigration presented to the country, a development that he said brought with it “a thousand unforeseeable possibilities.” At the time, the immigrants were almost entirely from Europe, but the influx was unprecedented, and for many Americans it was frightening. For Lippmann, it was exciting. “The great social adventure of America is no longer the conquest of the wilderness but the absorption of fifty different peoples,” he wrote. “Immigration . . . may swamp us; it may, if we seize the opportunity, mean the impregnation of our national life with a new brilliancy.” Another fifty years passed before America’s leaders dared to embrace that “great social adventure” in its full breadth, and it is only in the half century after 1965, with a population connected to every corner of the globe, that the country has finally begun to demonstrate the exceptionalism it has long claimed for itself.

From "A NATION OF NATIONS: A GREAT AMERICAN IMMIGRATION STORY." Copyright © 2015 by Tom Gjelten. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

By Tom Gjelten

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