ISIS’s specific targeting of the Copts coincided with an increasing transnational interest in the plight of Christians globally. The Trump administration has focused policy on aiding persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, and the Copts have figured prominently in such initiatives. The language of persecution and extinction shapes discourse and policy among political and religious leaders in the United States, and such leaders have argued that the United States is the only hope for “saving” Middle Eastern Christians from complete decimation. The beheading of 21 Copts on the shores of Libya by ISIS affiliates in February 2015 has provided the most striking imagery in making global Christian suffering visible for Western policymakers and Christian leaders.
Although Copts stand as the exemplary Christian victims of Islamic terrorism within such circles, their struggles as people of color and migrants in the age of Donald Trump are not alleviated by their privileged status among Christian leaders and Western policymakers. Along with other communities of color, they face discrimination because of their racial difference from white America, and Copts encounter the same sort of targeted profiling and hate crimes as do their American Muslim counterparts, racialized and securitized after 9/11. The rhetoric of Christian persecution, particularly in the United States, has been used for the advancement of domestic issues and as one of the central reasons for continued US military presence in the Middle East to fight groups such as ISIS. Images of bloodied Coptic bodies after church bombings or beheadings provide the impetus to fight against the United States’ enemies—including and especially Muslims. One of the sites of this battle has been the Diversity Visa, or Green Card Lottery.
President Trump has frequently railed against the Green Card Lottery and campaigned for a merit-based system of immigration, arguing that it allows “criminals” and “terrorists” to settle in the United States. A February, 2018, White House memo argued that “chain migration” and the visa lottery have threatened national security, providing a list of Muslims convicted of terrorism that entered the United States by way of family or the lottery. Yet, the Trump administration’s call to end the Green Card Lottery because of threats to national security stands in direct contradiction to the administration’s rhetoric of “saving” Middle Eastern Christians, like the Copts, since Copts make up one of the largest groups of Lottery recipients.
Copts have disproportionately won the lottery because they apply at higher rates than their Muslim neighbors. Every October, as the Green Card Lottery website opens and applicants start to submit their information, Copts around Egypt flock to their local church computer centers. There, a church servant takes the required photo and submits all information. From US church statistics over the past 10 years, the number of Coptic immigrants, particularly those who won the lottery, has increased exponentially, with more and more Copts applying for the lottery from cities to remote villages of Egypt where economic disparities are felt the most strongly. Many parishes in the New York-New Jersey area have borne the pressure, most notably since the 2011 Arab Spring, when dozens of families, especially from areas of Upper Egypt such as Minya, Assiut, and Naj Hammadi, came to churches straight from arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York each week, seeking shelter and work.
Many Americans, Coptic Americans included, have interpreted increased immigration to the United States a result of persecution in Egypt. Yet, many Copts apply for the lottery because of both discrimination against them as a minority group and growing socioeconomic precarity, particularly in Egypt’s rural parts. My doctoral fieldwork in the Upper Egyptian village of Bahjura (and the New York-New Jersey area in the United States) revealed these socioeconomic drivers for Middle Eastern Christian migration. In Bahjura, as with other places throughout rural Egypt, the once influential Coptic landowning families of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries now haunt contemporary communities with their closed, dilapidated villas spotting the village’s dirt streets, their owners having long ago migrated to Europe and the United States. Morcos, a resident of Bahjura, asked me over lunch one hot summer afternoon if the United States is predominantly Christian. I responded affirmatively. Looking at me inquisitively he continued, “This country is our country. We are its indigenous people [al-asliya]. They want to say that it is theirs, but that is plain wrong.” For Morcos, there is an intercommunal divide between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. Put differently, Muslims claim Egypt as theirs, but it is really “ours”—Christian—because the presence of Copts in Egypt predates the arrival of Islam. Morcos understood the United States as a Christian nation, a place where Christians have power because they are the majority, contrary to Egypt, in which they feel powerless and precarious because they are a minority. With increasing austerity measures and the authoritarian crackdown under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, what remains for Copts and Muslims in contemporary Egypt is a sense of political and economic uncertainty.
Standing in the way of migration to the West for many Egyptian Muslims and for other Muslims around the world is prevailing Islamophobia that spans political and social realities. In contrast, Middle Eastern Christians have become a part of a transnational form of Christianity, one interwoven with American empire and geopolitical interests. The Trump administration, along with other conservative US politicians and evangelical organizations, has championed the plight of persecuted Christians around the globe, and especially in the Middle East. The success of these efforts to politicize Coptic lives hinges on the post-Cold War remapping of the world, promoted by politicians and evangelicals, as a civilizational battle between Christianity and Islam. The increased migration of Copts through the Green Card Lottery has taken place in this context, and Copts in Egypt have come to view migration to the United States as an answer to their economic woes and social hardships as Christians, assuming that their shared Christianity with the majority of Americans will protect them from discrimination. Yet, Copts and other Middle Eastern Christians in the United States face discrimination because of their racial difference from white America and suspicions of an overly close relationality to Muslims and the Middle East. These forms of discrimination manifest in a number of ways—from verbal and physical assault, murder, and securitization.
Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric has affected not only Muslim Americans, but also Sikhs, non-Muslim Arabs, or people of South Asian descent. One of the early victims of violence was the Egyptian-born Coptic Christian Adel Karas, shot dead by two white males inside his grocery store in San Gabriel, California, on September 15, 2001. The racialization of Muslims and Middle Eastern communities in post-9/11 America has meant that certain bodies have been made “suspicious.” In the United States, Copts have been included among these suspicious bodies, and have tried to combat such suspicion through highlighting their Christian faith, one particular strategy that Middle Eastern Christians have deployed to assert a claim of racial-religious misrecognition. Thus, while Coptic racial difference—as a Middle Eastern community—places them into vectors of solidarity with other people of color and with those communities who have been targets of the post-9/11 racial infrastructure, Copts have been compelled to distance themselves from such communities by American religious and political forces whose support hinges on their special status as Middle Eastern Christian victims of Islamic violence.
The Trump administration’s rhetoric on the Green Card Lottery—that it is a means to allow “criminals” and “terrorists” to enter the United States and do harm to real Americans—is yet another example of the precarious and paradoxical position Middle Eastern Christian communities find themselves in. Copts enroll in the Green Card Lottery to escape marginalization in Egypt. Yet, upon arrival in the United States, they discover that their Christian identity, even within a majority Christian nation that has prioritized them for their plight in the Middle East, does not shield them from religiously indiscriminate racialization and Islamophobia faced by other Middle Eastern immigrants. Coptic communities are not protected from policies that aim to secure and strengthen white supremacy in America, and to further separate them from other racialized immigrant communities that share similar struggles of discrimination, acts of violence, and deportation.
Candace Lukasik is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and the 2019–2020 inaugural research fellow in Coptic Orthodox studies at Fordham University. Her research sits at the intersection of migration, religion, and politics, with special focus on Middle Eastern Christians.
Cite as: Lukasik, Candace. 2020. “Middle Eastern Christians and the US Immigration Debate.” Anthropology News website, March 5, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1367