Harold Sabbagh is an Arab-American whose father arrived in the United States in 1923. His family came from Zahle, Lebanon, which was a part of Syria.
"When my father was seven years old his mother and his father, my grandfather, came to Canada and then to the United States to seek his fortune," he said.
As there are today, quotas are placed upon immigrants arriving from each country to the United States then, limiting how many are allowed in each year.
Sabbagh's uncle wasn't able to immigrate on the Syrian quota, so he entered the states as an Egyptian. He was born in Zahle but lived in Tanta, Egypt. To make it to the United States with his brother, he said he was born in Egypt.
"The idea was to limit the immigration from less than desirable countries," said Sabbagh.
Sabbagh will represent the Arab-American community on a panel titled "Civil Liberties and Immigration in America" on Feb. 7 at the Monroe County Public Library Auditorium. The topic has become a concern to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is sponsoring the discussion, in the light of immigration reforms sweeping the nation as a result of increasing immigration from Mexico and the Middle East.
One issue Sabbagh will address at the panel is the quota system that the United States has for the number of immigrants coming from different countries. He will also tell stories of discrimination against Arab-Americans and how these issues have been on the rise since 9/11.
According to a Jan. 2 ACLU news release from the ACLU, the discussion will contain a "panel consisting of specialists on central aspects of the current national debate over immigration to the United States and their rights and responsibilities."
To offer a comprehensive discussion of such issues, all "perspectives" will be presented to create a "complex discussion," the release said.
The discussion will not only cover different viewpoints, it will also give attention to "current developments in Indiana, where some local government officials have been instructing citizens to inform authorities about purported illegal immigrants."
In addition to Sabbagh, Claudia Porretti, the ACLU-Indiana executive director and a child of Cuban immigrants, will participate.
The panel will also include Angela Iza, an Indianapolis immigration attorney; Peter Guardino, a leading specialist on modern Mexican history and Russell Hanson, a national authority on American politics.
The ACLU Web site reminds citizens of some of America's past mistakes, including the "1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, one of our nation's first immigration laws, to keep out all people of Chinese origin; during the 'Red Scare' of the 1920s, thousands of foreign-born people suspected of political radicalism were arrested and brutalized; many were deported without a hearing, and finally in 1942, when 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were interned in camps until the end of World War II."
Today many Arab-Americans and Hispanics face discrimination, and this panel is to shed light on the impact of immigration laws, in addition to promoting understanding.
Sabbagh feels that because quotas did impact his family in a minor way, the "need to remove quotas by country or race or ethnic origin" is close to his heart.
"All those descriptors, I want to bring out at this forum," he said.
Sabbagh said forum organizer Larry Friedman "wanted me on is because there are two big things right now, one is terrorism, and that aims at Arabic- sounding, Arabic-speaking people. Now I don't speak Arabic great, but my name is Arabic, we're an Arabic family."
The other thing, he added, is Hispanic immigration.
Sabbagh observed that people judge others on outward appearance or by language. He also said that, like himself, many Arabs who immigrated from the Middle East are Christians and that people tend to forget that and just stereotype them.
One thing Sabbagh truly wants citizens to understand and hopes to get across at the panel is that "one can't sacrifice a few for the many."
Kathleen Huff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.