Immigration reform should take a page from the Rams’ playbook

Melissa Jane Kronfeld Freelance Writer
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The all-American “can-do spirit,” or in this case, “Khan-do spirit” is alive and well. And if you don’t think so, just ask the soon-to-be owner of the St. Louis Rams, Shahid Khan.

As a 16-year-old native of Lahore, Pakistan, in 1967, Khan came to the United States as so many had before him, in search of better life. While attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Khan gained membership into the conservative Beta Theta Pi fraternity and began dating Ann Carlson, a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl from the Chicago suburbs, who would eventually become his wife and mother of his two—now adult—children.

While enrolled in school, Khan began working at the automotive systems and parts provider, Flex-N-Gate (FNG). And when he graduated in 1971 with a degree in industrial engineering, he continued working for the local business. A decade later, Kahn would no longer be just an employee; rather he would become the company’s sole proprietor.

But in the meantime, Khan lived out his American dream in Champaign. After finding great success in developing FNG’s signature one-piece, no-rust bumper, Khan took out a small business loan in 1978 and opened up his own shop. Like so many Americans before him, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, Khan was inspired by the possibilities of the free-market system which would allow him to pursue his interests, nurture his talents and grow his now sizeable income.

His one-man operation led to the creation of a car bumper, which is now considered to be the industry standard. Everyone knows that Americans are fond of their pickup trucks and SUVs. But what they don’t know is that the Muslim born Khan supplies the “Big Three” automakers (Daimler-Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) with close to two-thirds of the bumpers for their larger-sized vehicles.

When FNG was put up for sale in 1980, Khan jumped at the opportunity to return to his roots, both geographically and commercially. Today, Forbes estimates FNG to be a $2 billion a year operation, ranking it 229 on the list of the largest U.S. privately owned companies.

But, just like every great American story, Khan’s meteoric success has been tempered by allegations of fiduciary funny business. Accusations that he purposively sheltered $250 million dollars over the course of five years, decreasing his reported income by over $80 million dollars, led to a messy legal battle. After extensive wrangling, Khan paid the government a whopping $68 million, a sum—he told the Illinois Champaign News-Gazette—he plans on getting back.

But Khan has not let the charges—or the loss of income—get him down. Rather, to the great surprise of most Champaign residents (as well as the media, sports commentators and fans), Khan put in a bid to buy the St. Louis Rams, a National Football League operation valued to be worth close to $1 billion. Some of the locals even gathered at the Khan-owned Urbana Country Club to celebrate his acquisition Thursday night.

The community seems pleased that Khan will inherent the pride of joy of Missouri’s sports fans. Most of those who have commented to the press about Khan, have nothing but words of praise for the businessman, who not only lives and works in neighboring Illinois, but also contributes substantially to his former alma mater (he sponsors numerous scholarships and the school even named a tennis facility after him).

Mike Ross, the director of the university’s performing arts complex, commented, “I would say that Shad and Ann Kahn are most generous philanthropic leaders of their generation.”

But the most important aspect of Khan’s story is not his vast fortune or his battle with the Internal Revenue Service, but rather what his life’s tale has to teach us all about why the United States remains, to this day, perhaps the greatest country on earth. Our porous borders, freedom of faith, inviting middle American towns, and the bountiful opportunities we can provide anyone who chooses to take advantage of them, keeps the fabric of the country woven strategically tighter then most. And Khan represents a perfect example of the continued existence of what has become, at least with the current state of the economy, a seemingly nostalgic “American dream.”

In a recent article in the Economist, Lexington noted that the greatest impact of terrorism on the U.S. has not been the trauma caused by 9/11, but rather, the decline of foreigners coming to, and settling in, the United States.

To some, slowing the influx of Muslim immigrants might seem like a strategic plus in the war against Islamic fundamentalism. But in fact, the negative ramifications of adhering to a more stringent immigration regime becomes glaringly obvious in light of Kahn’s inspirational tale: for every Umar Abdulmutallab (the Christmas Day bomber) we try to keep out of the country, there are a handful of Shahid Khan’s, Sergei Brin’s (the creator of Google), Jawad Karim’s and Steve Chen’s (two of the three co-founders of YouTube) that we are preventing from pursuing their potential and making America a better and more prosperous place.

It might not seem intuitive, but the best stimulus and job creation strategy might just be an aggressive effort to entice the smartest students from around the globe to come to the U.S. to study, and then get them stay here, creating jobs, building companies and sparking innovation—just as like Shahid Kahn.

Defeating terrorism on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan is only half the fight. Just as the commanders in the field are trying to win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi and Afghan populations, so too must we, here in the homeland, woo back the immigrant students, entrepreneurs and investors that keep the ingenuity upon which the United States was founded and built, alive and well.

Muslims strongly agree that the United States is a great place to be a member of Islam’s billion-strong community. And more so than their counterparts around the world, Muslims in the U.S. tend to reject extremism, pursue opportunity, and assimilate to the American way of life. Armed with these truths, the image of a “crusading” America as a discriminatory and vengeful “Great Satan” that seeks to eliminate the Islamic faith and destroy the global Ummah disintegrates into the obscure oblivion from whence it came.

This is not to say that the U.S. is immune to discrimination, it certainly has its fair share. But Khan is a case in point for why America is not the country our enemies either perceive us or make us out to be. A young Pakistani boy of modest means who grows up to be the billionaire owner of an American sports franchise, clearly epitomizes the strength, tenacity and equality upon which American society has remained steadfast and why the U.S. is the envy of all the world. In no other country on earth would Khan’s success have ever occurred as it has here in America.

What America has to offer the world, is what Khan found when he reached our nation’s shores… possibility. Khan had the possibility to go to school, the possibility to fall in love, get married and have a family, as well as the possibility that he, a young Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, could start his own business, not to mention, amass a substantial fortune. But more then anything Khan made it possible for himself to perennially partake in the most all-American of pastimes, football.

A close friend and adviser to Khan noted, “I think the NFL, which is lily-white when it comes to ownership, needs Shad for PR reasons. And Shad is a great businessman who will be of tremendous value to the NFL ownership group. I can’t recall any non-white professional sports team owners in the U.S. other than the [Robert] Johnson family which owns the [North Carolina] Charlotte Bobcats.”

Now, with his 60 percent stake in the Missouri sports team Khan faces a new challenge. Can he lead the Ram’s to their second Super Bowl victory? It’s been more then 10 years since the team has won the championship. But with the shrewd-minded Khan at the helm (who is also said to be a fervent Rams fan), perhaps the 2010-2011 season will be for the NFL franchise, as Khan’s life has been in America, one of great and seemingly endless possibility.

But, to the great dismay of football fans across the nation, we will have to wait until next February to find out.

Melissa Jane Kronfeld was a reporter with the New York Post from 2005-2009. A graduate of New York University and George Washington University, she lives in New York City, where she writes about politics and international relations.