In the early 20th century, Midwestern industrialists actively recruited for labor in the Middle East. One family to heed their call were the Dabagia brothers. Around 1908, the five siblings left their small Levantine town and moved to Michigan City, Indiana, to work at the Pullman Standard boxcar manufacturing plant. The Pullman plant is long closed, but Michigan City remains home to a vibrant Muslim community. “We’re all contributing to what makes this country great today,” says Phil Dabagia, whose father was one of those Pullman workers.
Today, Dabagia is the longtime president of the Islamic Center Of Michigan City, a thriving mosque and community center that serves about 100 local families. Around 40 percent of their members are recent immigrants, Dabagia says — all hardworking people who are determined to make the most of the opportunities the United States has to offer.
They are not so different from Dabagia. He began working at age 11, setting up pins in a bowling alley. Two years later, when his father passed away, the 13-year-old helped support his family. After high school, he worked in a grocery store, then in 1963 was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving for two years in Germany as a military policeman. On his return, Dabagia took a job as a policeman with the Michigan City police department, where he served for 20 years. In 1986, he became a corrections officer, eventually rising to become assistant director of the Laporte County correctional system, managing 24 people and running the city’s electronic-monitoring program. He retired in 2011.
I think it’s good to have Middle Eastern immigrants. This is what makes the country great: It’s a melting pot.
Today’s Middle Eastern immigrants are highly skilled and educated, Dabagia says. His father had only a fourth-grade education when he came to America, but the current crop of immigrants are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other highly trained professionals. Statewide, 15.1 percent of Indian’s immigrants have advanced degrees, compared with 8.6 percent of U.S.-born Hoosiers. “We have businessmen that started chain stores here. We have doctors. We have attorneys. We have people who’ve served in government,” Dabagia says. “They’re all immigrants or children of immigrants, and they’re all making contributions.”
Dabagia doesn’t want an open-borders immigration policy “unless they’re escaping hardship or tyranny.” But he wants to make sure that immigration policies give Muslims a fair chance at coming to America. A recently floated travel ban suspending entry of foreign nationals from seven countries went too far, and was not done in a careful or thoughtful way, Dabagia says. “The countries they named weren’t the ones where terrorists were coming from,” he says. “It was a shoot-from-the-hip solution, and that doesn’t work.”
What’s needed, Dabagia says, is “an open and frank discussion” about how the country wants to handle immigration — and about the benefits that immigrants bring to communities like Michigan City. “I think it’s good to have Middle Eastern immigrants,” he says. “This is what makes the country great: It’s a melting pot.”