Afghan immigration

2011-01-16 09:09:11

Almost all Afghans in North America are refugees or asylees relocated to the United States and Canada in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), often after having spent time in refugee camps in Pakistan. According to the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 53,709 Americans and 25,230 Canadians claimed Afghan descent, though the actual numbers are probably considerably higher. Although widely dispersed initially, most Afghans eventually congregated in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., in the United States and in Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. It is estimated that about 60 percent of Afghan Americans live in the San Francisco Bay area.

Afghanistan occupies 249,700 square miles of southwest Asia between 29 and 38 degrees north latitude. The country is bordered by Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China to the north, Pakistan to the east and the south, and Iran to the west. The land is covered in high mountains and deserts with patches of fertile lands along river valleys. In 2002, the population was estimated at 26,813,057. The Pashtun ethnic group composed 38 percent of the population; the Tajik, 25 percent; the Hazara, 19 percent; and the Uzbek, 6 percent. Afghanistan is an Islamic state in which the majority of the people are Sunni Muslims; 15 percent are Shia Muslims. Afghanistan has long been a crossroads for imperial invasions across Asia. Until the 18th century, local nobles or foreign empires ruled the country. In 1973, a republic was proclaimed by a military coup. Following a 1978 coup of leftist forces, the Soviet Union moved thousands of troops into Afghanistan in 1979 in support of a new government. A war ensued until 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in accordance with a United Nations (UN) agreement. Afghan rebels finally deposed the pro-Soviet government in 1992, ending a war that had killed more than 2 million and caused more than 6 million to flee the country. Fighting continued, however, as a radical Islamic fundamentalist division known as the Taliban gained increasing control of the country. In 1996, it captured the capital city of Kabul, executed the former president, and began to impose a strict religious regime in which women were highly restricted. By 1998, the Taliban held most of the country but had come under increasing criticism from world powers. The United States attacked terrorist training camps of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden with cruise missiles in 1998 and demanded that he be handed over. In 1999, when the United States’s demands were not met, UN sanctions against Afghanistan went into effect. A UN ban on military aid followed in 2001. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, the Taliban again refused to hand over bin Laden, who had masterminded the attack. Military strikes against Afghanistan began shortly thereafter under a newly stated U.S. policy that those who harbored terrorists would also be treated as terrorists. Thousands of Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan where they received substantial aid from the United States. 

Early records are virtually nonexistent, but the 200 Pashtuns who immigrated to the United States in 1920 are believed to have been the first Afghan immigrants. Immigration remained small, however, until the Soviet-inspired coup of 1978 and was limited almost entirely to the welleducated and the upper classes. Prior to 1978, only about 2,500 Afghans lived in the United States. Between 1980 and 1996, more than 32,000 were admitted as refugees, along with 40,000 under regular immigrant visas, most as part of the family reunification program. Immigration declined dramatically as the Taliban extended its influence in the mid- 1990s, but it began to revive following the United States invasion of 2001. Between 1992 and 2002, 17,501 Afghans immigrated to the United States.

Prior to 1978, only about 1,000 Afghans lived in Canada. Because Canada did not create a special category to allow more Afghan refugees to enter the country, during the 1980s, Afghan immigration remained small, leading to complaints by some of anti-Muslim bias. Of the 21,710 Afghans in Canada in 2001, about 10,000 came between 1981 and 1995; more than 11,000 arrived between 1996 and 2001.

In both the United States and Canada, Afghans have tended to divide into subcommunities based on tribal affiliation, religious sect (Sunni or Shiite), or language. Also, they have preferred creating their own businesses to wage labor. It is still too early to evaluate the nature of their integration into North American society.