Governor Greg Abbott insists he has the power to bar Syrian refugees from settling in Texas. While that contention is debatable—as is the legality of his threat to cut funding to non-profit faith-based resettlement agencies that bring Syrians to Texas—we’ll let the courts and the lawyers fight that one out.
For now, let’s imagine that Abbott’s predecessors, beginning in the late nineteenth and continuing through much of the twentieth century, had exercised that power he claims to wield and barred refugees of Syrian / Lebanese origin, many of them then, just like today, fearing persecution and sectarian violence.
(And yes, most but not all of the people behind these developments came from what we know of today as Lebanon, but that country did not exist as a free republic until 1943. Until 1923, the nations we now know as Syria and Lebanon were divided across a few different provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and US authorities classed all immigrants from that area as hailing from “Turkey in Asia.” As is the documented case with the Manziel family, some of these people were labeled “Syrian” until Lebanon was reborn.)
Here are a few things Texas would have missed out on:
The Texas Medical Center, As We Know It
Born Michel Elias Dabaghi to Lebanese immigrants who fled religious persecution, Dr. Michael DeBakey’s mother Raheeja taught him to sew and knit as a boy, two skills he would later credit with helping him become, in the words of the Journal of the American Medical Association, “the greatest surgeon ever.”
Debakey helped link smoking to lung cancer in 1939 and assisted in developing the concept of the MASH unit after his service in World War II, thus saving countless lives in the ensuing Korean War. Along with those of Dr. Denton Cooley, DeBakey’s innovative heart surgery techniques and allied inventions (too numerous to detail here) put Houston’s Texas Medical Center on the map as a world-class citadel of cardiology and healing in general. Small wonder that upon his death, he was the first person ever to lie in state at Houston’s City Hall—Houston would be even more a one-industry town than it is without his contributions to the Med Center.
The Live Music Capital of the World, As We Know It
Through the various incarnations of his namesake club, record store and label, Clifford Jamal Antone, born in Port Arthur to a Lebanese / Syrian family, helped put E. Sixth Street (for better or worse) on the map and nurtured the careers of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli, Charlie and Will Sexton, Carolyn Wonderland, and Gary Clark Jr. “Soft-jowled, sloe-eyed, by turns avuncular and contained, shambling and elegant, Clifford Antone is, amid this sea of scenemakers, the unmistakable maker of the scene,” wrote our own Robert Draper in 1997, a man “whose Atlas-like patronage of this most American of music forms” caused Austin to surpass Dallas and Houston (in national recognition if not fact) as a hub for the blues.
No Clifford Antone, no SRV statue on Lady Bird Lake.
The University of Texas and Texas A&M University, As We Know Them
UT alum Joe D. Jamail—the colorful, salty “King of Torts” and the grandson of Lebanese immigrants—has donated at least $50 million to his alma mater, and today the campus is dotted with buildings, pavilions, and rooms bearing the Jamail name. Jamail was also one of the big money donors behind the Longhorns run of success under Mack Brown in the preceding decade. Who knows if they would have would have been able to pull of that elusive first national championship since 1970 without him.
Speaking of that earlier era of Longhorn dominance, much of it came thanks to the quick feet and uncanny balance of Longhorn running back Chris Gilbert, a half-Lebanese All-American from Houston, the first NCAA running back to run for 1,000 yards in his first three seasons of eligibility and still the holder of the record for longest run from scrimmage (96 yards) in UT history.
Given their shared ethnic heritage, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it’s a little surprising that Jamail didn’t lean on former coach Mack Brown to recruit Lebanese-Texan quarterback Johnny Manziel, the great-grandson of a man who once boxed professionally billed as “The Syrian Kid.” Instead, Johnny Football went to Aggieland, where he took that historically merely above-average program to heights unknown since dark master Jackie Sherrill glowered on the Kyle Field sidelines, picking up a Heisman Trophy along the way. Say what you will about his off-field doings, you cannot dispute that Manziel reenergized Aggie football, so much so that some among the maroon faithful now call the totally overhauled Kyle Field “the House that Johnny Built.”
So, if you are keeping score at home, the Horns’ field is named after one Syrian/Lebanese immigrant, and the Aggies’ new stadium was made possible in large part by the feats of another.
A&M’s off-field equivalent to Joe Jamail was Michel Halbouty, the visionary wildcatter son of a struggling Lebanese-born Beaumont grocer. After getting out from behind dad’s cash register, Halbouty headed to Spindletop, working first as a water boy for fifty cents a day. He was hooked on the trade, and later, after obtaining four degrees from A&M, he became one of the most adventurous of wildcatters Texas has known.
This “Oilman of Legend,” as the New York Times called him when he died eleven years ago at age 95, advised presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, called for more regulation of the oil industry against his own financial self-interest, predicted the energy crisis of the seventies more than a decade before it came to pass, and pioneered the Alaskan oil patch.
While A&M’s geosciences building bears Halbouty’s name, another that does not is his most important contribution to Aggieland. That would be the George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Library. Bush 41 had many a college to choose from, but Halbouty, chairman of the committee to bring it to College Station, and a man who wore his Aggie ring on his left ring finger for the last six decades of his life, could not countenance the idea of it being anywhere other than his alma mater: “Mike was very persuasive,” Bush once told the Houston Chronicle. “He’s a bulldog, once his mind is made up.”
All that, and we didn’t even get into their contributions to Texas food (Antone’s po’ boys and the Phoenicia and Jamail’s grocery stores in Houston alone); clothing (Haggar’s slacks); finance and the state of the arts and philanthropy in the city of Fort Worth (Bass family rainmaker Richard Rainwater was of half-Lebanese descent); and drama (El Paso’s F. Murray Abraham is the son of Syrian immigrants).
Most of the forebears of these great Texans arrived before the twenties, when the federal government tightened restrictions on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and “Turkey in Asia.” The politicians were acting on behalf of their nativist constituents who feared that people like Russian Jews (fleeing pogroms), Greeks (fleeing Turks), and Syrians (fleeing the ISIS of their day) were “mongrelizing” America, that they had “bad genes” and were just too foreign, too Jewish, too Catholic or Orthodox, ever to assimilate to the American Way.
And so in 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, establishing restrictive immigration quotas on non-northern European countries. (At around the same time, Indian-American and Japanese-Americans were stripped of their citizenship and declared “non-white” by courts.)
In speaking against the bill in 1924, Republican Detroit congressman Robert Clancy had this to say:
Since the foundations of the American commonwealth were laid in colonial times over 300 years ago, vigorous complaint and more or less bitter persecution have been aimed at newcomers to our shores. Also the congressional reports of about 1840 are full of abuse of English, Scotch, Welsh immigrants as paupers, criminals, and so forth.
Old citizens in Detroit of Irish and German descent have told me of the fierce tirades and propaganda directed against the great waves of Irish and Germans who came over from 1840 on for a few decades to escape civil, racial, and religious persecution in their native lands.
The “Know-Nothings,” lineal ancestors of the Ku-Klux Klan, bitterly denounced the Irish and Germans as mongrels, scum, foreigners, and a menace to our institutions, much as other great branches of the Caucasian race of glorious history and antecedents are berated today. All are riff-raff, unassimilables, “foreign devils,” swine not fit to associate with the great chosen people—a form of national pride and hallucination as old as the division of races and nations.
But today it is the Italians, Spanish, Poles, Jews, Greeks, Russians, Balkanians, and so forth, who are the racial lepers. And it is eminently fitting and proper that so many Members of this House with names as Irish as Paddy’s pig, are taking the floor these days to attack once more as their kind has attacked for seven bloody centuries the fearful fallacy of chosen peoples and inferior peoples. The fearful fallacy is that one is made to rule and the other to be abominated. . . .
President Calvin Coolidge was not impressed with Clancy’s speech. As laconic as ever, on signing the anti-immigrant bill, pretty much all “Silent Cal” had to say was “America must remain American.”
And today, at least to many of our elected officials, it is the Syrian refugee who is to be abominated, not because we fear their bad genes so much as we fear that they want to go on murderous rampages or impose Sharia on us all, this despite the fact that that, Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings pointed out, statistically we have more to fear from angry white men, and Sharia is not the law of the land anywhere, no matter what Irving mayor Beth Van Duyne might think.
It’s impossible to prove a negative. Who can say what more Syrian and Lebanese (and Jewish and Italian and Greek and Asian and Eastern European) immigration might have brought to America and Texas had we allowed it to continue after 1924 and before 1965, when the quota system was abolished. What can be said with certainty is that immigrants from the same part of the world we are now trying to insulate ourselves from raised the game in every field of endeavor we Texans hold near and dear, from oil and football to food and medicine to money and the law.