Refugee who rose in Detroit is troubled by automakers' silence

DETROIT — Majed Moughni has lived the American dream: He climbed the ladder from impoverished refugee, to hotel dishwasher, to parking cars for Ford Motor Co. royalty. Today he’s a lawyer, sitting at a chair and desk in an office that all once belonged to a Ford chief executive officer whose Lincoln Continental he used to park.

Moughni sees the business case for Ford’s senior executives to aggressively court Donald Trump after the president spent months criticizing automakers for making cars in Mexico. Their silence so far on Trump’s order halting immigration from seven Middle Eastern countries is another matter, and he can’t hide his disappointment.

“I’m a product of what Trump is trying to ban,” Moughni said. “It’s careless. This is a country of immigrants.”

Automakers are walking a tightrope as they court Trump, whose policies on clean-air standards, corporate taxes and trade will affect their fortunes. They have to balance that against other considerations closer to home: The traditional three U.S. automakers are based in Michigan, which backed Trump’s surprise victory but also has a substantial Middle Eastern population troubled by his executive order on immigration.

Ford’s hometown of Dearborn has been referred to as America’s Muslim Capital, with more than 30 percent of the population of Arab descent. From 2005 to 2015, the state accepted 19,545 refugees from Iraq and Syria — two of the seven countries affected by Trump’s ban.

Automakers’ responses

Trump took special aim at Ford during the campaign and the automaker has worked to get back in his good graces. Executive Chairman Bill Ford, a great-grandson of the founder Henry, has said he can always get a hold of Trump, or the president calls him. CEO Mark Fields visited the White House on back-to-back days last week to discuss jobs, fuel-economy standards and even Oval Office decor.

Still, Ford and its auto-industry peers in the Detroit area have been largely silent on the immigration order. Christin Baker, a Ford spokeswoman, declined to comment. Representatives for General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. also passed.

Tesla Motors Inc.’s Elon Musk, one of a dozen CEOs who met with Trump on Monday to discuss manufacturing, said a blanket entry ban “is not the best way to address the country’s challenges.”

On Sunday, Musk asked his 6.89 million Twitter followers to read the order and suggest amendments, which he will then take to Trump’s CEO advisory council to develop a consensus and present to the president.

Entwined history

Moughni’s is one of countless stories that show the entwined relationship of the auto industry to the region’s immigrant population.

Hundreds of protesters gathered Sunday in Hamtramck, a 2-square-mile city within the borders of Detroit whose longstanding ties to the auto industry include a GM factory that makes sedans and the Volt plug-in hybrid. A Polish enclave for most of the last century, Hamtramck now has a vast Muslim population because of immigration from Bangladesh, Yemen, and to a lesser degree, Bosnia.

“This is what immigration looks like!” was one frequent chant.

Hamtramck has the nation’s first Muslim-majority city council, and the panel’s top vote-getters in the last two elections descend from Yemen — another of the nations affected by the decree. Automakers are afraid of Trump, Councilman Saad Almasmari said in an interview at the rally: “That’s why they keep silent.”

A refugee story

It was in Hamtramck that Moughni’s father — newly arrived in America ahead of his family — landed a job on the assembly line at a Chrysler plant. The father saved up enough to buy plane tickets for his family, including his eight kids, and eventually managed to afford a Chrysler LeBaron. Moughni was 6 when he and his family moved to America in 1977 to escape civil war in Lebanon.

The Chrysler gig lasted only about two years, until Moughni’s father joined the thousands of autoworkers swept from the industry after an oil shock. The father worked as a cashier at a convenience store, while Moughni did his part to make ends meet.

“It wasn’t much of a life growing up with your dad not having the financial means to raise eight kids,” Moughni says. At 12, he started mowing lawns and picking weeds for neighbors. By 15, he delivered Domino’s pizzas. At 18, he was hired at the newly opened Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dearborn — first as a dishwasher, and later as a parking valet.

‘Meant to be’

It was the Ritz job that helped Moughni pay his way through undergraduate school at the University of Michigan at Dearborn. It also introduced him to Bill Ford, Edsel Ford II and Harold “Red” Poling, the CEO who steered Ford through the early-1990s recession. Moughni got to know Poling by name.

When Poling died in 2012 and the office Ford rented for the retired CEO — right across from the Ritz — came up for lease, Mougnni seized on the opportunity. The late Poling’s former space, complete with the red leather chair and mahogany desk, has been home to Majed A. Moughni Law Offices for about three years.

“It was meant to be,” Moughni says.

Moughni sees common ground with Trump, and in fact made an unsuccessful run for Congress about six years ago as a Republican with a motto to keep jobs and production in America. But for companies like Ford, which he notes has many engineers from India, he doesn’t understand why CEO Fields hasn’t spoken out on the immigration issue.

“As far as Ford and Mark Fields and Bill Ford cozying up to Trump, I don’t think that’s a bad thing” for the company, Moughni said. That said, “they should be outraged as well that this policy may trickle over to other parts of the world.” Fields, he said, “should speak out.”

Jamie Butters, Keith Naughton, David Welch and John Lippert contributed to this report.

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