Arab American communities have a long history in the United States. The diverse group includes anyone who came from or whose prior relatives came from the 22 Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa and the Middle East.
Starting in the late 19th century, immigrants from the Ottoman Empire began to migrate to the United States to find work or escape political conflicts. This immigration slowed in 1924, when the U.S. government instituted immigration quotas that prioritized people from northern and western Europe, and picked up again after 1965, when the United States got rid of this quota system.
After this, Arab immigration mostly increased until 2017 and 2018, when new travel bans targeting predominantly-Muslim countries slowed this immigration. President Joe Biden revoked the existing travel ban in 2021 when he took office, but the bans still significantly slowed Arab immigration to the United States.
Immigrants From Greater Syria Leave the Ottoman Empire
The first period of significant migration from the Arab world started around 1880 and lasted until 1924. During this time, roughly 95,000 immigrants came to the U.S. from what was known as Greater Syria, a region in the Ottoman Empire. This region included present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
“The biggest driver really was the sort of disintegration of the Ottoman Empire [which dissolved in 1922], and the financial pressures that were prevalent on Mount Lebanon in particular,” says Randa Kayyali, author of The Arab Americans.
In Lebanon, a blight on the mulberry trees important to silk production caused a collapse in the industry, leading many silk farmers to look for work in other countries. Immigrants from Lebanon and other parts of Greater Syria left to escape poverty and famine, but also political issues. In the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire’s decision to conscript Christians as well as Muslims into the military motivated Christians in Greater Syria to emigrate.
Once in the United States, many Arab immigrants found work in factories in the northeast or the midwest (some of the first mosques in the country were built by Muslim Arab Americans in North Dakota, Michigan and Iowa). Others worked as peddlers, selling goods door-to-door throughout the country.
Because of the travel involved in peddling, by 1900, “you would find a small Arab community in just about any state,” says Matthew Jaber-Stiffler, a researcher at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Though Arab immigration dropped during World War I, the major shift in immigration came in 1924, when the United States passed an immigration act known as the Johnson-Reed Act. This law established a quota system that favored immigrants from northern and western Europe, while severely restricting the ability of people from other parts of the world to immigrate to the United States.
Johnson-Reed Act Slows Immigration in 1924
The Johnson-Reed Act’s quota system was in place for four decades, and it drastically reduced the number of Arab immigrants to the United States. With its passage in 1924, immigration from the Arab world dropped to about 1,000 people or fewer a year.
After World War II, the United States began to make some exceptions that slightly increased the number of immigrants coming from Arab countries. The U.S. government made exceptions for doctors, scientists, engineers and other people with sought-after professional skills who wanted to immigrate to the United States. As a result, many educated people from countries like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq came to the United States, marking the beginning of a phenomenon known as the “brain drain.”
The other exception involved refugees. The wars in Palestine in the late 1940s that led to the establishment of Israel and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians led many to seek refuge in other countries. The Refugee Relief Act in 1953 allowed 2,000 Palestinian families to immigrate to the United States. The U.S. also accepted another 985 Palestinian families in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1965, the United States experienced another major shift in its immigration policy. The Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated the discriminatory quota system from 1924, allowing many more people from outside northern and western Europe to immigrate to the country. This led to an increase in immigration to the United States from all over the world, including Arab countries.
1966-1990 Sees Rise in Immigration From Arab World
The new law led to a big increase in Arab immigration. Between 1966 and 1990, some 400,000 people immigrated to the United States from the Arab world.
Many of these immigrants were educated professionals or students who came to study at U.S. schools and found work in the country afterward. Others were refugees fleeing conflicts at home. In addition to Palestinians, who continued to flee displacement and discrimination, the United States began to receive refugees from the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
The fourth major immigration period from 1990 to the present day has been very fraught. During this period, many refugees fled conflict in Arab countries—including wars that the United States had started. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States began to require male Muslims over the age of 16 who had recently immigrated from certain Arab countries to submit to annual photographs and fingerprinting, making many Arab Americans feel unwelcome in the country.
Arab Immigration in the 21st Century
After a brief decline, Arab immigration continued to grow in the 21st century, with tens of thousands of Arab immigrants entering the country every year. However, Arab immigration dropped substantially after 2017, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order severely restricting travel, immigration or the ability to claim refugee status from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an amended version of the ban targeting people from the predominantly-Muslim countries of Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, as well as North Korea and Venezuela. President Joe Biden revoked the ban in 2021 when he took office.