What do former American President Bill Clinton and the new Miss USA Rima Fakih have in common? Jokes about Clinton’s notorious womanizing aside, rather a lot, actually: Rima is a perfect example of Bill’s answer to America’s economic woes.
Speaking in April about fiscal responsibility, Clinton said immigration was a key to United States central government budget deficit reduction, which in turn was vital for America’s future. He was quoted on the website of The Atlantic magazine as saying, “We [the US] need more immigrants. We need to reverse the age ratio. I see that as part of fiscal responsibility."
Coming from the US president who will perhaps best be remembered for putting a long deficitary American federal budget into surplus, this is serious stuff. Expounding on his theme, he added that "the great virtue of this country, the thing we have over China and India, is that we have somebody from everywhere here, and they do well. This country still works for immigrants.”
He should have added that immigrants also work for their new country. Typically fleeing trouble spots or poverty pockets, of which there are more than a few in the modern Arab world, migrants from the Middle East tend to be hard working and — on the whole — economically successful. Only a short hop from my vantage point of Ann Arbor, Michigan, places like Rima Fakih’s hometown of Dearborn show the inspiring impacts of Arab immigration to the US.
The bustle of places like Dearborn allows Clinton to conclude that: “The changes we make will be less draconian if we get more people into the system. I don’t think there’s any alternative than to increase immigration. I don’t see any kind of way out of this [deficit] unless that’s part of the strategy.”
This brings us back to Ms Fakih. With his eye for the ladies, one wonders what Bill makes of Rima personally, but there is no doubt that he approves of what she represents: a young and successful migrant to America. Born in Lebanon but raised in the US, Rima Fakih is fairly typical of newly arrived Arab-Americans: from a modest background and flourishing in their new homeland in ways difficult to imagine had they never come to the US. These emigrants have been arriving in force from the Arab world for over a century, and they and their descendants are to be found in most communities around the US.
The contribution of these Arab-Americans to the US economy has traditionally not been easily quantified in dollar terms or labor market participation. That is partly because so many of them change their names and turn their backs on their roots. Not so Rima Fakih: though she will represent the US in this summer’s Miss Universe competition, she has shown pride in her Arab heritage. Yet even if she doesn’t win the world crown, her camera-friendly credentials are assured and she will doubtless go on to parlay the Miss USA title into serious money. That way, Clinton’s beneficent fiscal loop happily closes, with migrants such as Fakih working their way up and enriching the American system. Young and successful, they pay more in taxes and don’t rely on state benefits.
On another level, Fakih underlines the positive moral and cultural importance of Arab Americans living in US society. OK, she’s easy on the eyes, and she and her successful immigrant community cheer up the American economy, but this sort of prominence is also playing another crucial role. Fakih has come as an antidote to the “Islamist terrorist” xenophobia that is unfortunately commonplace in the US press, both before and after 9/11. Long prior to the destruction of the Twin Towers in September 2001, this kind of sentiment was — and remains — widespread in America. And though Fakih has not been immune to the conspiratorial accusations of the right-wing media, the general praise of the mainstream — despite the minor pole-dancing distracter — has done well to marginalize her critics and better the image of Arab Americans.
Hopefully, the new Miss America’s rise will help a little to clear the air in that respect, even as Bill Clinton’s thinking on the economic role of immigrants reminds us of their strong positive contribution.
RIAD AL-KHOURI is a senior economist at the William Davidson Institute of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor