Iranian immigration

2011-02-19 12:06:57

During the 1990s, Iranians formed the largest immigrant group from the Middle East in both the United States and Canada. According to the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 338,266 Americans and 88,220 Canadians claimed Iranian ancestry. By far the greatest concentration of Iranians in the United States was in California; about half of all Canadian Iranians lived in Toronto.
Iran, known throughout much of its history as Persia, occupies 630,900 square miles, with Turkey and Iraq on the west; Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and the Caspian Sea on the north; Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east; and the Persian Gulf and Arabia Sea on the south. In 2002, the population was estimated at 66,128,965. The people are ethnically divided between Persians (51 percent), Azerbaijani (24 percent), Gilaki/Mazandarani (8 percent), Kurds (7 percent), and Arabs (3 percent). Iran is the only country in the world with a government under the control of Shia Muslims, who comprise 89 percent of the population; 10 percent are Sunni Muslims. From their homeland in Iran, the Persians created one of the world’s largest empires between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., when they were conquered by Alexander the Great. After more than 500 years under a Greekspeaking government, the native Sasanians returned to power between A.D. 226 and 640, when Arab Muslims conquered the region. Unlike other Islamic regions, Iran’s population was largely of the Shiite branch of Islam, which held that only descendants of Muhammad should rule or exercise high spiritual authority. The Safavid dynasty reached a peak of political influence and cultural development in the 16th and 17th centuries but steadily declined in power with the advent of European expansion. During the latter years of the Qajar dynasty (1779–1921), Iran’s economy was largely controlled by Russians in the north and British in the south. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who came to power as the shah of Iran in 1941 alienated religious leaders by his campaign of rapid modernization. The shah was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who established a fundamentalist Islamic republic and waged war over border territories with Iraq throughout the 1980s. Muslim extremists, angered by American support for the shah and supported by the Iranian government, also seized a group of American embassy workers in November 1979, holding them for 444 days. Not only was there an anti-Iranian backlash in the United States, with the embassy closed in Tehran it became necessary for potential immigrants to travel to a third country to obtain visas. During the 1990s, the Iranian government gradually became more moderate. Fundamentalist clerics continued to exert widespread influence however. In 2004 they declared several hundred reformers ineligible to stand for parliament, thus allowing fundamentalists to regain control of the legislature.
It is impossible to say how many Iranians may have immigrated to North America prior to World War II (1939–45), but the number was extremely small. Almost everyone from the Middle East was classified as an Arab prior to 1900, and frequently as a Syrian until 1930. The first significant group of Iranian immigrants came between 1950 and 1977, when about 35,000 came to the United States. This number is misleading, however, as nearly 400,000 nonimmigrants (visitors and students) also arrived during this period, many of whom eventually stayed in the United States. The fall of the pro-Western government of the shah in 1979 gave new impetus to educated and modernized Iranians to immigrate—in 1990, half the Iranian population 25 years or older had at least a bachelor’s degree. About 200,000 sought refuge in the United States between 1979 and 2000, and eventually almost 60,000 were granted refugee or asylee status. In 2000 and 2001 alone, almost 12,000 Iranian refugees were admitted. A substantial number of them were from minority groups, including Assyrians and Armenians (most of whom were Christians), Kurds, and Jews. Altogether almost 117,000 Iranians were admitted to the United States between 1992 and 2002.
Iranians first came to Canada in significant numbers after 1964 and then after 1978. Most of these several thousand immigrants were well-trained professionals or students, in some way tied to the rapid modernization plans of the shah. Many were doctors, and most blended into Canadian professional society. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, however, most immigrants were fleeing persecution. Their numbers included supporters of the old regime, but also many students, feminist groups, and other reformers who had supported the revolution in order to oust the shah but whose modernist views were not tolerated by the new fundamentalist regime. In 1986 and 1987, for instance, the government dismissed 11,000 government employees, mostly women, in a “purification” campaign. More than 90 percent of Iranian immigrants to Canada came between 1981 and 2001. Beginning in 1996, Iran broke into the top 10 source countries for Canadian immigration. Between 1996 and 2002, more than 6,400 Iranians immigrated annually, including more than 4,200 refugees between 2000 and 2002.