Column: Immigrant hopes realized in the Michigan vote

Voting probably wasn’t the first thing on our parents’ or grandparents’ minds when they arrived in the U.S. from countries and provinces where democracy was a pipe dream. Working (perhaps several jobs), learning the language and setting up home in the community took precedence over politics, and it was all in service of their top priority: creating a better future for their kids.

This week, that seemingly bygone promise of the American dream played out in real time inside Michigan polling centers. Hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans — many of them the second- and third-generation offspring of Middle Eastern immigrants — used their votes to send a message to President Biden in protest of his handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

Citizens concerned with civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, and frustrated with what they see as Biden’s unconditional support of Israel, joined a grassroots movement to check “uncommitted” on Tuesday’s primary ballet rather than vote for the incumbent candidate.

The goal was to get 10,000 votes. They hit 10 times that number. That’s more than 100,000 “uncommitted” votes in a swing state that Biden won by just 154,000 votes in 2020. Perhaps now he’s listening?

It’s of course still undetermined whether this impressive act of ballot-box protest will move the needle on U.S. policy, but the mere act of using one’s voting power to send a message rather than tank a candidate’s chances represented a hope realized.

Previous generations who immigrated to Michigan from countries such as Lebanon, Syria or Iraq came to the U.S. for a better life. They came here to escape war, political and religious persecution, lack of opportunity and corrupt systems lead by despotic strongmen or brutal theocracies.

Many came from places where “free elections” were largely performative because the outcome was already fixed, or where throwing in for one political party versus another meant putting your life at risk.

Some rulers never seem to leave. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, who’s been in office for a decade, has nothing over the late Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years. The Assad family has ruled Syria since 1971. My father came from Iraq, where occupation, American meddling and despotic leadership were the norm in his lifetime.

Political corruption, if not war, has been an ongoing reality from Lebanon to Libya dating back generations. It’s no wonder the promise of America still shines bright, even now in our divided, precarious state.

Biden was beaten by the “uncommitted” vote in both Dearborn and Hamtramck, where Arab Americans make up close to half of the population. Some are new to the U.S., but many more have generational roots in Michigan.

“Yesterday was a resounding victory,” Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said Wednesday. The 33-year-old is the son of Lebanese immigrants.

“This is not just an Arab or Muslim issue now,” he continued. “This is an American issue now.”

Their actions made headlines, and kicked off a movement that will likely be duplicated in other swing state primaries, where a sliver of the electorate could make or break a run for the White House. In 2020, Biden won Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes. The state is home to more than 57,000 Arab Americans.

Arab and Muslim Americans, the majority of whom have voted for the Democratic ticket since the Iraq war, are aware a Donald Trump victory in November is not in their interests.

In his first year as president, the Republican repeatedly insulted the Muslim parents of a fallen Gold Star soldier; enacted a Muslim ban; and ignored any semblance of diplomacy when he recognized the contested city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Arab American voters’ frustration over Biden’s support of Israel has hit a a new high, and they’re not alone. A lot of smart, civic-minded folks I know from all sorts of ethnic and religious backgrounds now tell me they’re considering sitting out the election in November.

Voting for seditionist Trump is a nonstarter, they say, but Biden’s unconditional support of Israel in its war with Hamas presents a moral conundrum that’s hard to overlook. Over 30,000 Gazans have been killed, the majority of them women and children, since Israel’s military began its punishing assault on Gaza in response to the brutal Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel that killed an estimated 1,200 people.

On Thursday alone, at least 115 people were killed and more than 750 injured, according to witnesses and Gaza’s Health Ministry, when Israeli troops opened fire on a crowd scrambling for aid in Gaza City.

But sitting out the election is not the answer, no matter where you stand on America’s role in the Israel-Hamas war — or on anything else, for that matter. It’s the only true power we still have as citizens, and if that sounds corny, consider what happened this week in Michigan.

It was democracy in action, something many of our parents and grandparents only dreamed of in their homelands.