Reasons for Arab Immigration

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First Wave

The initial wave of Arab Immigration lasted from the 1880's to around the 1920's. This was a period marked by the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and it's decline plays greatly into the explanation as to why many Arabs immigrated to the United States.

Turmoil in the Ottoman Empire

Sultan Abdulhamid II.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

The influx of Arab immigrants began in 1880, which marked a turning point in the Ottoman Empire. The Young Ottomans, a major reform group within the empire, drafted a constitution (called the Kanûn-ı Esâsî), which prompted a short but brief constitutional era. During that time, the Young Ottomans lead a military coup against Sultan Abdülaziz, and instituted Murad V as the new sultan. However, he was deposed of within a few months in favor of his heir, Abdülhamid II. A condition of his instatement was that he created a constitutional monarchy when he rose to power. [1] Thus, a parliament was created on November 23, 1876. Unfortunately, the sultan dissolved the parliament only after two years, and abolished the representatives that tried to force him to reconvene it. [2] This political unrest was a sign of decline of the empire, which encouraged many Arabs to leave their country for a place where they could earn money to live comfortably.

Another issue that pushed many Arabs out of the Ottoman Empire was the Ottoman conscription in 1909. The Young Turks rose to power in 1908 and instituted a mandatory term of military service for all Ottoman citizens. [3] This caused great unrest in the populace, and thus there was a large influx of Arabs in America who were attempting to avoid military service.

Economic and Political Reasons

During the early years of Arab immigration, the reasons for moving to America were primarily economic. The majority of these immigrants were illiterate and unskilled, so they sought to be peddlers in America, which did not require almost any practical skills. After about two or three years, they would bring back whatever money they made in order to support themselves in their home country (which was Greater Syria—a province in the empire). However, there was an exception. There was a small group of highly educated Arabs that immigrated to America in order to gain a political foothold in the country. This group was mostly composed of writers, and they established the Pen League—an Arab American literary society whose goal was to uplift Arab American literature as a whole. [4]

Immigration Came to a Virtual Halt

However, this immigration came to a virtual halt at the beginning of World War I, when anti-immigration laws came into effect in the United States. The Immigration Act of 1921 began this downward spiral of immigration. It established a quota that restricted that amount of incoming immigrants to 3% of the number of people from a particular country of origin. [5] However, the act was made even more strict in 1924 when a second Immigration Act was established, that decreased the quota to 2% of the number of people from a particular country of origin.

The reasons behind this act were rooted in the isolationist policy that America adopted following World War I. Since that time, Americans themselves favored letting the world deal with it’s own problems. They did not want America to get into any alliances or deal with any people that potentially could drag them into another war. Thus, this quota system was put into place in order to appease the desires of many Americans. The act passed with overwhelming congressional support [6], demonstrating the support that isolationism had in the U.S. In addition, it kept out people that were considered unable to naturalize, setting up a precedent for people that were considered “undesirables” in America. [7]

Second Wave

The quota laws were reduced and made more liberal following World War II, which then allowed for a new wave of Arab immigration. This wave followed the Palestine War in 1948, so many of the immigrants were refugees that were displaced from their homes. Due to the raging conflicts in the area, many students and educated elite decided to immigrate permanently to the United States.

The 1948 Palestine War

Al Faluja, an Arab Village whose people were vacated by Israeli Soldiers.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

War and political upheaval were some of the major reasons for emigration to the United States following World War II up to the present. The first major influx post World War II included many refugees that were displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The war broke out after the creation of the Israel state and its declaration of independence from its Arab neighbors on May 14, 1948.

Following World War II, the UN attempted to partition portions of what was then the area of Palestine towards the creation of a Jewish state. This was considered a necessity in the aftermath of the holocaust. While the Jews were accepting of this partition, Arabs greatly opposed it, claiming that it was unfair to the Palestinians that were living in Palestine. [8] Initially, the outrage of the incident was expressed through small acts of murder and violence. However, it quickly turned more and more militaristic, until it could be considered an all out war.

The fighting that followed resulted in the refugee status of about 750,000 Palestinians that previously lived in the area that is the state of Israel. The areas that Israel conquered during the war (e.g. Jaffa, Lydda, Ramle, Galilee, and Negev) also contained displaced refugees, so the count may be higher. Many of these refugees spread to other Arabic countries, but a significant portion made up the wave of Arab immigration following World War II. [9]

Educational Issues

Another major reason for Arab immigration following the war is derived from education. Numerous Arabic students have decided to come over to the United States in order to attend university. After completing their studies, many choose to remain in the country instead of going back to their homeland. Various Arabic professionals who needed additional training in the United States also typically decide to stay in the country following their training. These fully trained Arabs finally usually spread to already-established Arabic communities where there may be many jobs available to them (typically, these communities were between the Midwest and the East Coast). [10]

Third Wave

Following the abolishment of strict quotas regarding non-European immigrants (i.e. the Immigration Act of 1965), many more Arabs came flooding into the United States. Among these remained the students and working professionals. However, an even higher number came from more war-torn and politically unstable countries in the Middle East. [11] The establishment of the Republic of Iraq, for instance, led to conflict as to who the President would be. Military coup d’états of the Iraqi government occurred in 1958, 1963, 1968, and finally 1978 when Saddam Hussein rose to power. Palestinians from the West Bank have also been displaced since the occupation by Israel in 1967. Shi’ite conflict in Lebanon is another prominent example of displacement caused by war, since much of the persecution and fighting against the Shi’ites caused many to leave the country in order to escape.

The Republic of Iraq

Saddam Hussein, following his rise to power.
Source: [1]

The beginning of the political turmoil in Iraq occurred around 1958, during which the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown by the Iraqi Army during the July 14 revolution. [12] This caused General Abdul Karim Qassim to rise to power. However, he was eventually overrun in the February 1963 coup which brought Abdul Salam Arif to leadership.

This leadership did not last, however, because an opposing political party, the Arab Socialist Baath party, was responsible for another coup which occurred in 1968. While the leader during this time was Ahmed Hasan, the leadership slowly converted to Saddam Hussein, who took control of Iraq’s executive body in 1979. [13] He did this through killing and arresting all of his rivals in leadership, which allowed him to stay in command for an extended period of time. His ascension led to much tension within Iraq, mainly because of the breakdown of relations between Iraq and Iran which eventually led to the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.

The Sunni-Shi’ite Conflict

The Sunni and the Shiite Muslims were frequently involved in bitter strife throughout the 20th century. However, starting in the 1980’s, there was a severe increase in the violence that was exchanged between both groups. The true cause of the increased conflict is debatable—many blame it on outside forces that attempt to weaken the state of Islam. [14] However, others believe it to be due to the rise of Arab nationalism that occurred during the Iranian Islamic Revolution. [15] Regardless of the cause, however, the conflict did force many people out of the Middle East in order to find a safer place of worship, and the U.S. did provide that safe haven for many Muslims from the Middle East.

The Iran-Iraq War escalated the conflicts between the two groups greatly, and caused much more violence to erupt throughout the Middle East. It was encouraged by many political leaders, such as the President of Iran, that the oppressed Shi’ite people in Iraq should throw a coup and attempt to escape their oppression. This lead Saddam Hussein to fear a potential uprising. [16] In addition, it allowed him to think that the Sunni people of Iran would join Saddam’s campaign, so it gave him confidence to start this war. [17] Very few Sunni’s did join Saddam, however, and instead they stayed loyal to Iran in the conflict. The length of time that this war lasted was a contributing effect to the increased rates of immigration to America among these peoples.

Effect of 9/11

In the years that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was expected that America would see a sharp decline in Arab Immigration. However, demographic information actually shows that Arab immigration has not been affected by the attacks—Arabs make up a steady 4% of immigrants before and after the attacks. [18] What has been affected, however, is the amount of students that come in on visas: a dramatic decrease in these numbers has occurred before and after the attacks, due to the greater security measures placed on these students. [19] The Patriot Act, which allows the U.S. government great authority to screen people and “identify” them as terrorists, has kept many people from attaining visas. In order to attain this goal, the act has a provision that creates a Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. This system forces schools to keep up with the online database and update international student’s information and monitor them to make sure they comply with all immigration laws. [20] More information on the impact of 9/11 on Arab Americans can be found on our Effect of 9/11 on Arab Assimilation page.


1. ^ Kinross, Patrick (1977) The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire London: Perennial. ISBN 9780688080938. p. 576.

2. ^ Selim Deringil "The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876-1909" p 139–150

3. ^ Lord Kinross (1977). Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks. pp. 52. ISBN 0-688-08093-6.

4. ^ Pipes, Daniel. “Muslim Immigrants in the United States.” Center for Immigration Studies. August 2002. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

5. ^ Divine, Robert A. (2007) "America, Past and Present 8th ed." ISBN 0-321-44661-5 p.736

6. ^ John B. Trevor Sr. An Analysis of the American Immigration Act of 1924.

7. ^ Guisepi, Robert A. World History International. "Asian Americans." 2007. January 29, 2007.

8. ^ "The Palestine Problem II—New Factors In The Racial Balance Of Power, Growth Of Jewish Underground Groups", From a Special Correspondent Lately in Palestine. The Times, Wednesday, 26 September 1945; pg. 5; Issue 50257; col F

9. ^ David Tal, War in Palestine, 1948. Strategy and Diplomacy, Routledge, 2004.

10. ^ Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck and Adair T. Lummis. Islamic Values in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 25 shows 46 percent of a sample of 347. That number has probably risen in the intervening years.

11. ^Arabs in the New World. Edited by Sameer Y. Abraham and Nabeel Abraham. Detroit: Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University, 1983.

12. ^ The enemy of my enemy March 6, 2007 Dilip Hiro

13. ^ Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, (2006), p.143-4

14. ^ Khomeini,Ruhollah and Algar, Hamid (translator) (1981). Islam and Revolution: Writing and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Mizan Press. p. 122.

15. ^ "Who started the Iran–Iraq War?", Virginia Journal of International Law 33: 69–89, Fall 1992

16. ^ Marr, Phebe; “The Modern History of Iraq”, page 156

17. ^ PBS Frontline (2003), "The survival of Saddam: secrets of his life and leadership: interview with Saïd K. Aburish"

18. ^ Brittingham, Angela and de la Cruz, G. Patricia. 2005. "We the People of Arab Ancestry in the United States." Census 2000 Special Reports #21. US Census Bureau, Washington DC.

19. ^ Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. "Yearbook of Immigration Statistics" Table 23 in 2003 + 2004, Table 25 in 2002, Table 36 in 2001 + 2000.

20. ^ Wong, Kam C. "Implementing the USA PATRIOT Act: A Case Study of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)". Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal 2 (2006).

Related Wiki Pages

Home Page

Overview of Arab American Identity

Effects of 9/11 on Arab American Assimilation

Effects of the Economy on Arab Immigration