By Matthew Stiffler, Arab American National Museum
“…but Syrian immigration is also steadily growing, and without restriction, we may expect in the next few years […] that many thousands of these human parasites will come here to reap the benefits of our civilization and increase instead of sharing our burdens.” - Dr. Allan McLaughlin, U.S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Service
These words, along with many similar statements, were written by a practicing physician and later chairman of what would become the U.S. Public Health Service. Although it may seem bombastic, racist, and un-progressive, the sentiment is reflective of the early part of the twentieth century when anti-immigrant rhetoric (a leading cause of the Progressive movement) had reached fever pitch. Entities of the United States government, state and local governments, societies, scholars, and popular writers expelled excessive amounts of energy studying and writing about the immigrant communities of the early 1900s, with the goal of proving how detrimental certain immigrants were (i.e. non-white and not from western Europe) to the health and welfare of the nation.
The culmination of two decades of scientifically based anti-immigrant rhetoric was the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which was seen as a major victory in curtailing the influx of “hoards” of immigrants. The act severely restricted the number of immigrants from many countries, mostly southern and Eastern Europe, and continued to exclude and limit Asian immigration as well. Syrians and other Arab immigrants were severely affected by the immigration quotas. In 1925, only 450 Syrians were allowed to enter the United States, compared with over 9,000 in the pre-WWI years. Luckily, there was enough of a base population of Arab Americans already living in the U.S. to maintain the vibrancy of those communities.
Arab immigrants, from what was then known as Greater Syria, entered the U.S. at an average of 5,000 per year between the 1890s and WWI. By the 1920s, the Arab American community in New York (both lower Manhattan and Brooklyn) was a thriving ethnic enclave, with dozens of restaurants and grocery stores that catered to both the Arab American community and the general public, newspapers in both Arabic and English, as well as numerous manufacturers, importers, and purveyors of women’s clothing (particularly silk undergarments and robes), linens, and lace products. In the area of Manhattan that would house the World Trade Center decades later, these Arab Americans built a community that fascinated the larger New York public, both for their successful entrepreneurial skills and their “exotic” music and cuisine. Once construction on the Battery-Brooklyn Tunnel began in the 1930s, the vast majority of this “Little Syria” joined the already-thriving Arab American community in Brooklyn, particularly around Atlantic Ave.
But at the same time that the Arab community in New York was establishing itself as an important hub for Arab Americans across the nation and a major supplier of textiles to the New York market, the community was being attacked from all sides by the anti-immigration machine. Although most immigrant communities in New York were subjected to the rancor, Syrians seemed especially targeted, and were often ranked as the lowest of the low. In one of the more scathing attacks, a representative of the U.S. Public Health Service (quoted at the start of this piece) blasted the Syrians as “this scum of the Levant” and talks of their “oriental…mental processes” that forces them to be great liars. In addition, he mentioned multiple times their “miserable physique” and their “inability to perform labor” and concludes that the only redeeming quality of the Syrian is “that they form a comparatively small part of our total immigration.”
Ironically, some of the most detailed information available about the living and working conditions of early Arab immigrants was produced by studies such as the U.S. Immigration Commission’s 40-volume 1911 report, whose main purpose was to argue for restricting immigration. The report offered detailed demographics for many immigrants, including Syrians and other Arabs, but often focuses on the drawbacks of immigrant communities: poor health, overcrowding, crime, and a perceived unwillingness to adopt American ways of life.
Reading between the lines of these reports, we find a growing Arab population in New York (and other areas) working diligently in various industries, sending money to family back home, and forming social, religious, and cultural associations, all against the backdrop of anti-immigrant movements across the country, and particularly in large cities.
The Arab American National Museum is currently researching and producing an exhibition about the early New York Arab American community. The exhibition not only details the history and legacy of the first Arab American community in New York, but it aims to intervene in the current anti-Arab rhetoric so prevalent in the post-9/11 United States. By showing the significant contributions Arabs have made to the nation, even in the face of the anti-immigrant fervor of the early 1900s, the exhibition also addresses current anti-immigrant rhetoric, which stereotypes immigrants from many areas of the world as economically draining and potentially dangerous. We hope to show vividly that immigrants are vital to our nation’s growth, as they continually bring with them new ideas and energies.
For example, famous Arab American poet and artist Kahlil Gibran lived and worked in Little Syria. The Syrians in New York were big producers and importers of silk and lace products. And the editors of Al-Hoda, the leading Arabic-language newspaper in the United States, were the first in the world to adapt the Linotype machine for Arabic.
If we relied solely on “official” histories, like the Immigration Commission report, to capture this past, we would be left with statistical analyses whose main purpose was to detail the perceived “un-American” and “immoral” immigrant populations. The purpose of the Little Syria exhibition is to show the vibrancy of the community and their interactions with the larger public (both positive and negative), as well this ethnic enclave’s legacy in New York, Brooklyn, and beyond.
 Popular Science Monthly, Sept. 1904: 442.
 In 1911, the United States Immigration Commission, also known as the Dillingham Commission, published a massive report (more than 40 volumes) detailing four years of research on immigration to the U.S. The recommendation of the commission was to restrict “undesirable immigration” and that those restrictions be “demanded by economic, moral, and social considerations” (Vol. I, pg. 48). For a good summary of the commission and its reports, see John Lund’s “Boundaries of Restriction: The Dillingham Commission,” University of Vermont History Review vol. 6 (1994) http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/histreview/vol6/lund.html.
 Statistics taken from the 1925 Annual Report of the Commissioner General of Immigration. Classification of Arab immigrants was messy during this time period, so numbers are not exact. Many Arab immigrants were listed as Syrian, some were listed as Turkish subjects, other were enumerated as Asian or Arabian, or by other nationalities.
 All quotations are from Allan McLaughlin’s article “Hebrew, Magyar and Levantine Immigration,” Popular Science Monthly vol. 65 (Sept. 1904): 432–42.