Esam and Badria Omeish and their daughters Abrar and Anwar have all been leaders in their communities in Northern Virginia. Esam, who came to America at the age of fifteen, was active in the Muslim Students Association at both the local and national levels.
His wife Badria, a molecular biologist, is a college teacher. Abrar and Anwar excelled in their public high schools and went on to study at Yale and Harvard, respectively.
The 1965 Immigration Act brought new opportunities for people from predominantly Muslim countries to move to the United States, and Muslims are now one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the country. Their integration in American society has exemplified the country’s diversity, though many have also faced discrimination and prejudice.
Like most Americans, author Tom Gjelten comes from an immigrant family. His grandfather, Nicolai Ordahl, was born and raised on a farm in Norway but felt compelled to move to America when the farm passed to an older brother and he was left without employment opportunities.
As a Norwegian immigrant in the early twentieth century, Nicolai had much in common with the non-European immigrants who benefitted from the 1965 immigration reforms, but the later wave of immigrants faced obstacles that Nicolai’s generation did not encounter. A Nation of Nations tells the story of how America as a nation was transformed by the 1965 Immigration Act.
Gjelten is a veteran journalist for NPR News with experience covering both national and international issues.
The 1965 Immigration Act, which eliminated the use of national origin quotas in the selection of immigrants, was enacted in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Great Society legislative initiatives under President Lyndon Johnson.
In order to win the support of conservatives like Democratic congressman Michael Feighan of Ohio, the Johnson Administration had to compromise.
Feighan insisted on “family unification” as the top priority in immigration policy under the 1965 Act, rather than “employability.” His thought was that favoring those immigrants who already had relatives in the United States would serve to maintain the existing ethnic profile of the country. Instead, that change led to the phenomenon of chain migration, which came to be the driving force in immigration in future years.
Mark Keam, whose Korean name was Sun Yeop Kim, immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of fourteen.
As a young man, he was fascinated by politics and by the promise of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, with its vision of an alliance between minorities and immigrants of color. In Northern Virginia, he became a political activist, organizing Fairfax County in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
In 2009, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, having defeated fellow immigrant Esam Omeish in the Democratic primary.
Immigration is often said to be an entrepreneurial act, a gamble taken with the expectation of a future reward for the up-front risk. Victor Alarcón, Sr., followed his sisters-in-law to the United States even though he had no contacts there and spoke no English.
Over the next twenty years he learned English, taught himself new skills, worked in a variety of jobs, and even went into business for himself. He passed his energy and entrepreneurial drive on to his sons, who grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, surrounded by other immigrants. Álvaro’s closest friends in high school were two other young immigrants, one from Pakistan and one from Korea.
The 9-11 terror attacks and the rise of Islamist extremism as a U.S. security threat meant that Muslim immigrants in the United States were often viewed with suspicion. The Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, where many Muslim immigrants worshipped, came under special scrutiny.
Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was born in the United States to immigrants from Yemen, served as an imam at Dar Al Hijrah and later advocated violent attacks on Americans. He came to the attention of FBI investigators after it became clear that he had met some 9-11 hijackers. Awlaki had impressed Esam Omeish, one of the lay leaders at the mosque, as a moderate.
His case illustrated how difficult it sometimes was to determine who and why some Muslims became radicalized.
A 1965 law made immigration to the United States possible for people around the world who previously would not have qualified for admission to the country.
Among those who benefitted was Nak Man Seong, who immigrated with his wife Jeom Chul and their children in 1976. Nak Man and Jeom Chul were brought to the United States to work at a chicken processing plant, in menial jobs that native-born Americans had spurned.
They lived frugally and saved as much as they could and were able to send their children to college. Their daughter Gyeong, who took the name Alex in America, became a lawyer and later married Mark Keam, whose family had also immigrated from Korea. Mark and Alex settled in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Find out more about this immigration story and many others in Tom Gjelten’s A Nation of Nations.
Like thousands of other non-European immigrants who came to the United States after the 1965 immigration reforms, Esam Omeish and his family settled in Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1970, Fairfax County was more than ninety percent white, with an African-American minority population that was just overcoming decades of segregation and prejudice.
Over the next forty years, the county was fundamentally transformed by immigration. By 2015, nearly one out of three county residents were foreign-born, and the demographic change had political as well as cultural implications. In 2009, Omeish ran for the Virginia House of Delegates. He was defeated by another immigrant, Mark Keam.