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US elections 2020: Arab Americans stream to the polls to elect a new president

Short but steady lines of voters flock to polling stations across Dearborn, Michigan, in one of the most divisive races in recent memory
Voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Dearborn, Michigan (MEE/Ali Harb)
By in
Dearborn, Michigan

"I was kind of nervous, but it really felt good."

That's how 19-year-old Shadi Mawri described voting in a US presidential election for the first time. 

The votes of Mawri and young Arab Americans like him may decide who wins Michigan and subsequently the presidential race on Tuesday - deciding the direction where the United States is heading for years to come.

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Standing outside a polling station in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb that is home to large Arab and Muslim communities, Mawri said his biggest concern this election cycle was the deep divisions in American society.

"There's a lot of division among people. And I feel like we should all be united like within the community and the country as well," he told MEE.

Arab American activists and local officials have been urging community members to vote, underscoring the harm that another four years of President Donald Trump may do to the country.

Mawri said he voted for Democratic candidate Joe Biden. He said the Trump administration had unleashed a torrent of deadly statements and legislation without thinking about their consequences.

'We need something new'

Ahmad Said, another young Arab-American voter, said education was his top priority this election. Asked about Trump's first term, he said: "We need something new."

"Biden is leaning more towards helping out with school loans and stuff," he told MEE. 

As a candidate in December 2015, Trump had called for a "total and complete shutdown" on Muslims entering the United States.

Less than two years later, President Trump signed an executive order severely restricting travel from several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen.

Hussein Aljabali, a Yemeni-American voter, said the ban made the community a target for bigotry.

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"When a president shows hatred towards any type of group, that brings all the people to hate that group," he told MEE.

Despite the national tensions and local anxiety about possible civil strife, voting was going smoothly across Dearborn early on Tuesday, with short but steady lines, that got longer as the day went on, at polling locations surveyed by MEE.

The process starts with voters filling out a form stating their name, address and date of birth before receiving their ballots, which contains more than a dozen local and national election races.

Then voters head to a booth where they can privately fill out their ballots, before feeding it into a counting machine.

"Thank you for your service," one voter told poll workers at the First Presbyterian Church, a precinct on the west side of the city.

Most volunteers outside of polling locations were for local school board candidates.

'Anti-immigrant'

Mary Lane, a Dearborn School Board trustee who is not up for reelection, was handing out the slate of the Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) - a local lobby.

The group had endorsed Biden for president as well as Democratic Senator Gary Peters for reelection. 

Lane, standing in an AAPAC sweater with a mask featuring colourful flowers, told MEE that the past four years have been "devastating" mentally for young people at the schools.

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"They're part of the community. So obviously, they're going to be affected by the tensions that are affecting all the rest of us," Lane said.

She said the Trump administration has been "anti-immigrant" - something that children of immigrant backgrounds are aware of.

"Our commitment, as a society, to refugee protection has been gutted. And that commitment is a huge part of American values. The kids knew that. They know that we're not supporting our immigrants."

The city is the hometown of Henry Ford, who revolutionised the car industry early in the 1900s. And while it is known as the capital of Arab America, about half of its population is white. In 2016, Trump received more than 12,000 votes in Dearborn - a year after he pledged to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

Lane said she worries that the polarised political climate may cause divisions within the Dearborn community.

"We've already had effects of it because we have less immigration. We have less investment in our schools. We have less investment in our environment and in everything."

'Amazing' turnout

Maria Ali, a 20-year-old Yemeni American, told MEE while waiting to cast her ballot that she was "really excited" to vote for Biden. 

Ali said it took her sister two years to be able to reunite with her Yemeni husband because of Trump's Muslim ban.

"A lot of people in the Yemeni community are voting this year because we want and need someone else in the White House," said Ali.

Adel Mozip, a school board candidate, said electoral enthusiasm is high amongst Arab Americans this year because of local races as well as the presidential election.

"People are realizing that they have to vote - that their vote is their voice, so the turnout has been amazing," Mozip told MEE, pointing to voters of all ages approaching the polling location where he was campaigning.

'I'm not choosing a friend in the White House; I'm choosing a better opponent'

- Linds Sarsour, Palestinian-American activist

Prominent Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour was touring polling locations to energise the community in Dearborn on Tuesday. 

"Refugees are on the line - immigrant rights, racial justice is on the line, so I'm hoping that our community understands what's at stake and comes out in big numbers today," she told MEE.

Many Palestinian American activists have raised concerns over the Biden campaign's pledge to continue unconditional support for Israel. 

An outspoken Palestinian herself, Sarsour has experienced first-hand the Biden campaign's questionable approach towards Palestinians. After she participated in an event on the sidelines of the Democratic convention in August, the Biden campaign disavowed Sarsour over her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Sarsour said change on social justice issues, including Palestine, comes from the streets, not the White House, but with Biden, activists have a chance to push the US administration to adopt progressive policies.

"I'm not choosing a friend in the White House; I'm choosing a better opponent," she said.

Sarsour added that she is "ready to protest" to advance Palestinian human rights the day after the inauguration, no matter who is in the White House.

"The ball is not in Biden's court. The ball is in our court - as a Palestinian American, Arab American and Muslim American community."

Arab Trump supporter weighs in

Despite the prevailing criticism of Trump in the Arab community, some voters are backing the president.

Mike Hachem, a Lebanese-American Republican, said he voted for Trump because his religious views as a Muslim align with the socially conservative values of the GOP.

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"The Arab American voter turnout in Michigan is probably going to dictate who wins the state, and from what I've been seeing, there's a lot of Arab Americans that are voting for Trump actually," Hachem told MEE.

While acknowledging that the majority of the community is backing Biden, he said support for the president is on the rise - an assertion backed by recent public opinion polls.

Hachem gave Trump's first term in office a barely passing grade - six out of 10.

He said he does not agree with everything the president does, especially when it comes to anti-immigrant policies and the Muslim ban. 

Hachem noted that many Arab Americans are entrepreneurs, which he said pushes them to the right of the political spectrum on the economy.

"Basically we're looking at it from an economic standpoint and from a business standpoint - that Trump is better for business."

Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016. This year, community activists have been citing that paper-thin margin to emphasise that every vote matters.

Earlier this week, some community members received messages on WhatsApp falsely telling them that the sensors in the voting machines are switched. "If you are intending on voting for Joe Biden you must bubble in Trump and vice verse," the message read.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nassel released a statement on Monday warning that the message is a "trick".

Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said the ploy was a form of "voter suppression".

"Oftentimes when you hear voter suppression, you think of not allowing people to vote," Ayoub told MEE. "Voters misinformation is also voter suppression. By putting out the wrong information and preventing voters from casting the right ballot, they're essentially suppressing the vote."

Ayoub said it is still unclear where the message in Dearborn originated from, but the state is working on the issue.