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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Middle East immigrants have left a lasting legacy on US  

There is a long list of great achievers who can trace their roots back to the region

A little more than one week ago, the Stanford University mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani died at the age of 40 after a battle with breast cancer.

In that short lifetime, she accomplished more than most of us ever will. Ms Mirzakhani was one of the world’s greatest mathematicians – a recipient of the Fields Medal, the highest honour in mathematics.

Her career was a triumph for the US university system and American scientific prowess. But Ms Mirzakhani was born and raised in Iran. She was living proof of the advantage immigration gives the United States.

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 is more, the US president Donald Trump campaigned and won on a promise to ban Muslim immigrants.

This outbreak of fear probably is due to geopolitical factors – the September 11 attacks, wars in the Middle East, Islamist terrorism in Europe and the US and the rise of Islamic State. Some on the American right believe that 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 that Middle Eastern immigrants will turn out differently. In economic terms, most Middle Eastern Americans 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 substantially 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 do not do justice to the individual contributions that Middle Eastern Americans have made. Ms 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, the web-file hosting service, and Bob Miner, also of Iranian descent, co-founded Oracle. Next time you bid on an auction on eBay., 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. And if you or your kids enjoy the videogames World of Warcraft or Overwatch, thank Egyptian American Allen Adham.

The list goes on. In science, too, Middle Easterners have been doing great things. For example, there is Nima Arkani-Hamed, an Iranian-American who works at Princeton University as one of the country’s premier string theorists. There is the Nobel prize-winning Lebanese-American chemist Elias Corey. There is Firouz Naderi, an Iranian-American who directed Nasa’s successful Mars exploration programme. And the Turkish-American economist Daron Acemoglu is one of the field’s brightest stars. Again, there are many more examples where these came from.

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 to some. But like those earlier waves of newcomers, Middle Easterners will eventually become just another bunch of regular Americans.

The backlash against Middle Eastern immigrants in the US is an overreaction to global events. The reality of Middle Eastern immigration looks headed for the same happy ending that has defined previous groups of new Americans. This does not mean every Middle Easterner who wants entry should be granted it – vetting is important, and those who seem like a security risk of course should not 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 for the US.

Bloomberg