Civil Rights Issues Facing Arab Americans in Michigan

Chapter 1


This report is a summary statement of the Michigan Advisory Committee’s study on “Civil Rights Issues Facing the Arab American Community in Michigan” and includes conclusions and recommendations. Much of the report is based on information received by the Committee at a community forum held in Dearborn, Michigan, on September 27, 1999. The Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is composed of 14 members. It is bipartisan, including representation from both political parties as well as the different geographic regions of the state. The Michigan Advisory Committee is also independent of any national, state, or local administration or policy group.

Arab American Demographics in Wayne County

Wayne County is located in the southeastern section of Michigan and has a population of more than two million residents. Detroit is the county seat.

The county is home to more than 100,000 persons of Arab ethnicity, making it the county with the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States. The Arab American community in Wayne County has many Arab ethnic groups: Egyptians, Iranians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Kaldeans, Lebanese, Moroccans, Palestinians, Saudis, Syrians, and Yemeni. Moreover, instead of being concentrated in one area, the Arab American community in the Detroit area is in numerous clusters throughout the county.

The Arab American population is similar in many respects to other immigrant groups in that Arab Americans have come to the United States seeking political freedom, economic opportunity, and social liberty. Most Arab Americans living in Michigan are secondary migrants, i.e., they have migrated to Wayne County after initially settling in another part of the country. The primary reason for this secondary migration is the attraction of the substantial and diverse Arab population in the county.

Civil Rights Issues Affecting Arab Americans

Similar to other immigrant groups, Arab Americans who come to the United States aspire to become part of the social fabric of the country. Unfortunately, prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory actions have been directed against Arab Americans. Though Arab Americans are proud to be Americans, persistent prejudice makes many feel like outsiders.

The Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights received a briefing on civil rights issues facing the Arab American community on August 13, 1998. Three topics of concern were stressed at the briefing: (1) the “profiling” and detaining of Arab Americans at airports and ports of entry to the country, (2) denial of due process to Arab Americans in deportation hearings, and (3) discrimination against Arab Americans.


The “profiling” done by security personnel at airports is an example of one type of discrimination faced by Arab Americans. The U.S. Department of Transportation has determined that Arab Americans fit a common physical description of terrorists. As a result, Arab Americans legally traveling and conducting business are routinely and disproportionately detained and searched. This occurs despite evidence that terrorists belong to many ethnic groups throughout the world.

In addition, it is alleged that Arab Americans are often victims of employment discrimination. It is alleged that many Arab American immigrants who come to the United States with a high level of education are not given the opportunity by employers to work in the professional field of their training. Hence, for many professionals, retail trade becomes the only available avenue for economic survival.

Denial of Due Process in Deportation Hearings

The Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 authorizes the federal government to present “secret evidence” in court against noncitizens who are considered a threat to national security. The act empowers the federal government to hold secret hearings, using evidence that cannot be challenged, on legal immigrants for deportation proceedings. The provision allows the Justice Department to arrest and deport noncitizens based on classified information shared only with a judge.

In these proceedings, it is alleged, Arab Americans are disproportionately denied the right to counsel, jailed without ever knowing or understanding the nature of the charges made against them, and such is done without a court trial. Moreover, it is alleged that such actions by the federal government target the Arab American community as evidenced by the fact that most of the 30 immigrants being held in U.S. jails since the law went into effect are Muslim Arabs.

Compounding the issue is that under the Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, any statements attributed to an individual in the past—statements protected by the First Amendment—can be used against individuals in deportation hearings. In addition, secret evidence can be used to strip resident aliens of the most basic rights and take them away from friends and family with no requirement that the federal government explain itself.


Two major issues within the educational setting are alleged to affect the civil rights of Arab Americans: the lack of bilingual education and the lack of cultural accommodation.

There are allegations from the Arab American community that the educational system often fails to address the social and cultural needs of Arab immigrant children. Many children are recent refugees fleeing wars in their homeland, and often Arab American children in the public schools are the first family members to be educated in the United States.

Many children of Arab ethnicity dress in a manner and hold to social customs that are very different from mainstream America. In the Detroit area, there have been numerous instances in area schools where Arab American students have been harassed and ridiculed on the basis of their dress and social behavior by other students. It is reported that there have been instances where school authorities have been insensitive and unwilling to act in support of the Arab American student population.

Additionally, for many Arab American students English is not their primary language. The availability of bilingual education programs in the school system has assisted many children in receiving a quality education. Attacks on bilingual education programs may be reducing the availability of equal educational opportunities to Arab American children.

There are also allegations of reluctance by local school corporations to hire Arab Americans in faculty positions.


Concentrations of Arab Americans in Wayne County by Census Tract

Source: Midwestern Regional Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, from 1990 U.S. census data.