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Arab immigrants

Significance: Christian and Muslim Arab immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, initially drawn to the United States by economic opportunities, have both assimilated into and remained distinct from mainstream American culture, creating a distinctive literary and ethnic identity and working to address stereotypes and prejudices arising from the unfamiliarity of Middle Eastern peoples in the United States.

Arab immigrants

Arab immigrant accountant helping a Latino man prepare his income tax forms in Chicago in early 2007. Known as Al- Muhaseb (the accountant) in Arabic, the man’s company was affiliated with H&R Block, the giant tax-preparation firm. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Tracing the historical presence of Arab immigrants during the various periods of their arrival in the United States raises questions of cultural complexity and religious diversity as well as problems of identification. During the early years of the first major period of immigration, which lasted from 1881 to 1914, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration used no standard terminology to identify from what parts of the Ottoman Empire Arab immigrants originated. Instead, the bureau used such labels as Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Ottomans, and Syrians. After 1899, the bureau simply labeled all Arab immigrants as "Syrians.”

Early Immigrants

The initial wave of immigration brought roughly 110,000 Arabic speakers to the United States before World War I (1914-1918). A second, much smaller, number entered between 1920 and 1924, when passage of a new federal immigration act set a quota on Arab immigrants. The 1924 law represented a shift in American opinion away from the open immigration policies of the earlier era, limiting the entry of members of designated ethnic or national origin groups to 2 percent of the numbers of those groups who had been counted in the 1890 U.S. census. This had the practical effect of further limiting the number of immigrants from Arab lands who could qualify for admission, as the bulk of immigrants to the United States before 1890 had come from northern Europe.

Countries of origin Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
Primary language Arabic
Primary regions of U.S. settlement Northeast, Midwest
Earliest significant arrivals 1880’s
Peak immigration period Mid- to late twentieth century
Twenty-first century legal residents* 262,468 (32,809 per year)

Profile of Arab immigrants

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States. These figures are only for immigrants from nations whose populations have the highest percentages of ethnic Arabs—those listed above. Other nations with large Arab populations include Chad, Israel, Somalia, and Sudan.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

The first Arabic speakers to arrive in the United States were Christians from Lebanon. Higher percentages of Muslim immigrants arrived during the next major period of Arab immigration, from the early 1950’s to the mid-1960’s. Another increase came after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system. The Arab countries that contributed the greatest numbers of immigrants after 1965 were Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, and Iraq.

The first Arab immigrants generally settled in the urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest of the United States, forming their own ethnic neighborhoods. By the beginning of World War II, they had established major presences in New York City, Boston, and Detroit. Their economic profile was both as members of the industrial workforce and independent businesspeople who traveled widely in search of customers for their lines of household goods.

The second wave of Arab immigrants, who came during the 1950’s, brought a significant number of professional people seeking better conditions. Their numbers were augmented by university students who chose to remain in the United States and followed employment opportunities to new homes, often creating an Arab presence where none had been before. The third wave, after 1965, contained a mixture of skilled and unskilled workers, many fleeing civil strife or instability in their homelands. However, equal numbers simply sought better lives for themselves and their families. The third stream of Arab immigration contributed most of the visible face of Arab America known to the rest of the United States.

Acceptance and Exclusion

All three waves of Arab immigrants initially encountered a variety of prejudicial attitudes beyond those associated with belonging to any group of newcomers to America working to establish themselves. The initial group from Syria and Lebanon entered the United States at a time when nativism was widespread and a cultural imperative on making all immigrants assimilate completely into white Protestant society was in vogue. The newcomers were viewed as suspect for multiple reasons. Not only were they foreign born and speaking limited English, they also were dark skinned, often unskilled, and members of either the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox faiths. Their village backgrounds, family loyalties, and relatively small numbers worked to preclude the establishment of a distinct and visible Arab ethnic segment of the population in a fashion similar to the process undergone by such groups as the Italians, whose own provincial origins took second place to their identification with their native country. The question of Arab eligibility for admission as American citizens proved contentious after 1910, due to federal government restrictions on Arab immigration. However, a series of successful lawsuits filed between 1910 and 1923 by members of what was loosely known as the "Syrian” community eventually established that Arabs were to be considered eligible for American citizenship.

Legal Arab Immigration, 2001-2008

Arab immigrants

Civil Rights and Stereotypes

The predominantly Muslim Arab immigrants who arrived during the 1950’s and early 1960’s usually arrived with greater economic resources and higher levels of professional education than the members of the first wave had possessed. They were far less flexible in blending with America society than their Christian Arab predecessors had been. They preferred to retain their allegiance to Islam and remained engaged in Middle Eastern political issues. Mainstream American general opinion toward Arab immigrants altered sharply following the Six-Day War of June, 1967, in which the American ally Israel fought several of its Arab neighbors. After a series of highly publicized airline hijackings by Middle Eastern groups, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon issued an executive order in September, 1972, that was intended to prevent terrorists from gaining entrance to the United States. His order authorized special measures against Arabs, ranging from the imposition of restrictions on their entry and ability to apply for permanent resident status to surveillance of community organizations under the code name Operation Boulder.

The fact that no incidents of terrorist activity connected with the Arab American community had occurred raised questions about the necessity of the president’s measure. However, the situation was further complicated by the subsequent oil embargo and the sharp rise in petroleum prices imposed by the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) after the conclusion of another Arab-IsraeliWar in October, 1973. Before these developments, Arab Americans had drawn little public attention in the United States. However, these events prompted a cultural redefinition of what it meant to belong to this community. No distinction was made in political language or mass media journalism to reflect the actual diversity of the contemporary Arab world, which was publicly cast as made up of vicious terrorists intent on destroying America, fanatical religious leaders—no matter which sect of Islam—and unscrupulous businesspeople. These stereotypes were based partly on political realities but were widely disseminated within the United States, unrelieved by positive characterizations of Arabic speakers in American culture.

The presence of such inaccurate images has contributed to a sense of social marginality among Arab Americans that has been addressed in several ways. While some Arab immigrants have made complete breaks with their home cultures and have adopted American lifestyles and values, others stress their uniqueness to distance themselves from being associated with a particular Arab nation or withdraw into ethnic communities, following the pattern of earlier arrivals.

A third response has been to confront stereotypes directly by stressing points of commonality between Islamic and American culture by calling attention to common emphases on strong families and beliefs held by both Muslims and Christians. Although the history of Arab immigrant civil rights activism can be said to begin with the protest by a delegation representing the Association of Syrian Unity made to the federal government during the citizenship disputes before World War I, most such groups came into being during the 1980’s. Perhaps ironically, the success of Arab Americans in adapting to mainstream culture during the earlier part of the twentieth century had the unexpected result of isolating them from the issues of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. The largest civil rights organization countering stereotypes and misinformation about the Arab communities has been the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Founded by South Dakota politician James Abourezk—the first Arab American to serve in the U.S. Senate—in 1980, it quickly established chapters nationwide. In 1985, the Arab American Institute was established inWashington, D.C., to encourage and promote greater involvement by Arab Americans in civic life and the political process.

Mistrust of the Federal Government

In 1987, the Reagan administration attempted to prosecute two longtime Palestinian American residents of California and six of their associates who had been distributing literature and working at fund-raising for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The government charged that they were promoting communism. Dubbed the "LA 8,” the Arab defendants were not deported, as a federal judge ruled the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, under which they were being prosecuted, to be unconstitutional. The government continued to attempt to revive the case six times over a period of twenty years, using successive pieces of antiterrorist legislation including the Patriot Act. In 2007, the Board of Immigration Appeals announced that no further action would be taken, following a ruling by a Los Angeles federal immigration judge that the plaintiffs’ civil rights had been repeatedly violated. This long, drawn-out case served as the focus for Arab immigrant distrust of the federal government and, despite the eventual vindication of the accused, created a legacy of wariness that was only exacerbated by the terrorist attacks on America of September 11, 2001.

The varied social impacts of the events of September 11, 2001, on the Arab immigrant communities were based upon several pieces of legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. There was an intensification of existing negative stereotypes about Arabic speakers and an erosion of certain civil rights and elements of due process in investigations carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with the stated aim of identifying possible terrorists and their accomplices, based in large part on racial profiling. Male immigrants fromArab nations regarded as terrorist havens who did not possess green cards were frequently required to be photographed, fingerprinted, and registered by the federal government. More than 140,000 people were registered. Only a handful of the people investigated were actually accused of having terrorist links, but the process resulted in hundreds of Arab immigrants leaving the United States for their home nations, Canada, or Europe to avoid official deportation.

Many of the actions taken by the FBI were sharply criticized by the U.S. Justice Department. These actions also helped energize civil liberties organizations within and outside the Arab community to oppose the selective enforcement of immigration law being utilized to target them. Arab immigrants found themselves having repeatedly to deal with the domestic political consequences of policies and actions they did not condone. They also were repeatedly obliged to emphasize and assert their adoption of American national culture, a process complicated by ignorance among mainstream Americans of the actual core values of Islam.

Despite these problems, the numbers of Arab nationals applying for immigrant status to the United States held firm after 2001—at an average of about 4 percent of total U.S. immigration. However, there was a sharp decline in the numbers of foreign student visas issued to applicants fromMiddle Eastern countries. The drop in student visas ranged from 31 percent for persons from Lebanon to 65 percent for persons from the Persian Gulf states. At the same time, however, the U.S. government actively sought persons fluent in all dialects of the Arabic language to work in its counterterrorism campaign. Ironically, the scarcity of Arabiclanguage programs in American institutions of higher education forced the government to accept applicants for these new positions from among recent Arab immigrants, who faced lengthy periods of security evaluation before they were hired.

These cultural and political challenges resulted in a new awareness of the presence of Arab immigrants in the mind of the American public and offered the immigrants an unprecedented opportunity to educate other Americans on the realities of Arab life. A prime example of this new assertiveness was the appearance in public settings across the United States of women wearing head scarves as required by the Qur$3n, a practice widespread within the Muslim world but not well known in the United States before 2001. In May, 2005, the Arab American National Museum opened in Dearborn, Michigan. These and other outreach efforts by Arab political and religious organizations has begun to create a degree of balance in how the American public regards Muslim and Christian Arab Americans.

Robert B. Ridinger

Further Reading

Arab American National Museum. Telling Our Story: The Arab American National Museum. Dearborn, Mich.: Author, 2007. Profile of the history and exhibits of this unique collection of Arab immigrant history.

Ewing, Katherine Pratte, ed. Being and Belonging: Muslims in the United States Since 9/11. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. Collection of eight ethnographic essays that explore how questions of identity and assimilation have been and are being addressed in contemporary Arab Christian and Muslim communities.

Hooglund, Eric J. W. Crossing the Waters: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States Before 1940. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987. Collection of original research essays on the first wave of Arab immigration.

Kayyali, Randa A. The Arab Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Detailed yet readable history of the cultural background of Arabic-speaking immigrants to the United States and their participation in and impact on American society.

Mehdi, Beverlee Turner, ed. The Arabs in America, 1492-1977: A Chronology and Fact Book. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1978. The history of Arabic speakers in the Americas is followed from 1789 to 1977 through fifty-five primary documents.

Naff, Alixa. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. History of the first wave of Arab immigrants before World War II and their economic and social networks.

Orfalea, Gregory. Before the Flames: A Quest for the History of Arab Americans. Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press, 2006. Collection of oral histories of 125 Arab immigrants of three generations of migration, with background information.

See also: Asian immigrants; Asian Indian immigrants; Asiatic Barred Zone; Iranian immigrants; Israeli immigrants; Muslim immigrants; 9/11 and U.S. immigration policy; Patriot Act of 2001; Religions of immigrants; Stereotyping.

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