Arab immigration to the United States

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Arab immigration to the United States began when Arabs accompanied Spanish explorers to the US in the 15th century.[1] During the Revolutionary War, horses exported from Algeria replenished the American cavalry and Morocco was the first country to officially recognize the independence of the United States in 1787 in what is known as the "treaty of Friendship".[2] However, Arabs did not start immigrating to the United States in significant numbers until the 19th century. Since the first major wave of Arab immigration in the late 19th century, the majority of Arab immigrants have settled in or near large cities.[3] Roughly 94 percent of all Arab immigrants live in metropolitan areas,[3] and nearly one third of all Arab Americans live in or around just three cities: New York, Los Angeles and Detroit.[3] While most Arab-Americans have similarly settled in just a handful of major American cities, they form a fairly diverse population representing nearly every country and religion from the Arab world.

The majority of Arab-Americans in the 21st century come from Christian backgrounds, with roughly 63 percent of all Arab-Americans claiming Christianity as their religion as of 2002.[4] Prior to 1965 nearly 90 percent of all Arab immigrants were Christian.[5] Moreover, around 32 percent of Arab Americans are of Lebanese heritage.[3] Most attribute the significantly higher number of Arab Christian immigrants than Arab Muslims to a few key reasons. First, Arab Christians have had an easier time obtaining American visas than their Muslim counterparts due to prejudices underlying American immigration policies.[6] Second, as the first Arab immigrants were predominantly Christian, even when the immigration process became less discriminatory, the presence of family members in the United States gave Arab Christians better opportunities to immigrate as they were able to find housing and jobs with greater ease. Some Arab Christians are wealthy and possess strong educational backgrounds, affording them an even greater opportunity to immigrate to the United States.[3] Another reason could be because Arab Christians are more likely to be persecuted in their home countries than their Muslim peers.

These figures aside, recent demographics suggest a shift in immigration trends. More Arab Muslims are coming to the United States than ever before in the most current wave of Arab immigration. Arab immigration has, historically, come in waves, most often as a result of struggles and hardships stemming from specific periods of war or discrimination in their respective mother countries.


While individually Arabs have been immigrating to North America since before the United States became a nation, the first significant period of Arab immigration began in the 1870s and lasted until 1924 when the Johnson-Reed Quota Act was passed nearly ending immigration from this region for the time being.[7] The overwhelming majority of Arab immigrants during this period came from the Ottoman province of Syria, which currently encompasses the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan , and Palestine.[7] Because it was not until the 1920s, with the Lebanese national movement, that immigrants from what is now modern Lebanon started adopting a Lebanese national identity, Arabs immigrating prior to that decade from modern day Lebanon were regarded as Syrians.[7] A predominantly Christian population, these Arab immigrants followed several branches of Christianity, primarily Maronite, Melkite and Eastern Orthodoxy.[7] During this period of time only five to ten percent of all Arab immigrants were Muslim, and an even smaller fraction were Druze.[7] As discussed above, Christians historically had a much easier time immigrating to the United States than their Muslim countrymen. Additionally, during this first wave of immigration, greater Syria was still under Muslim Ottoman control. As the 20th century approached the decline of the Ottoman Empire was becoming apparent, while Western Christian states in Europe and North America were concurrently flourishing and transforming themselves into modern industrial powers. As author Alixa Naff states, "for Muslims, loyalty to an Islamic ruler, even one perceived as inept or cruel, was critical if Islam was to remain unified and if it was to withstand inimical Western Christian influences. Arab Christians on the other hand, exposed to and protected by the Christian West, attributed the decline of Arab culture to the backwardness of Islam and its Turkish rulers."[8] In fact, by the mid-18th century each major branch of Christianity in the region was supported by a European power, exacerbating tensions between Arab Christians and Arab Muslims and thus increasing discrimination against the Christian minority.[9] Specifically sparking the migration was the 20 years of in-fighting between Druze and Christians in greater Syria. In 1860 alone an estimated 20,000 Maronite Christians were killed.[10] From 1908 until the demise of imperial rule, many young men left the Levant in order to avoid conscription into the Ottoman Army.[11] In this environment, it is unsurprising that many "Syrian" Christians seized this opportunity to emigrate in hopes of a better life, and many ultimately ended up in the United States.


  • New York and Ellis Island were the gateways for a large number of immigrants coming from greater Syria. By 1900 more than half of all Syrians in America resided in New York while a great many others lived across the Hudson River in New Jersey.[12] Many of the first immigrants from this region became involved in the New York and New Jersey garment industry. By 1924 there were 25 Syrian owned and operated silk factories in Paterson and West Hoboken, New Jersey alone.[12]
  • During the first wave of immigration, Arab men outnumbered Arab women at least four to one over time causing a very high intermarriage rate. In fact, the 1990 census showed that more than 80 percent of US born Arab-Americans had non-Arab spouses.[13]
  • Although only accounting for less than 10 percent of the total number of Arab immigrants to the United States, they had relatively large numbers in certain midwestern towns. The majority were "attracted to the great booming midwestern factories of steel, tin automobiles, and trains in cities such as Pittsburgh, New Castle (Pennsylvania), Detroit, and Michigan City."[14]


Immigration slowed greatly due to restrictive quotas and the Great depression from the late 1920s to the end of the 1940s. However, by 1948 war had broken out between Arab states and Yishuv forces. The 1948 Arab–Israeli War sparked a mass migration of Arabs, primarily Palestinians. The war, which ended in 1949, displaced over 750,000 Palestinians, from a population of only 1.3 million, from their homeland.[15] From 1948 until 1966, only 80,000 Arabs officially immigrated to the United States.[16] Of these 80,000, the majority were ethnic Palestinians while the second largest group was made up of Egyptians.[17] This new group of immigrants differed greatly from their predecessors, most markedly in their religious backgrounds. 90 percent of all first wave Arab immigrants professed Christianity as opposed to only 40 percent in the second wave.[15] Moreover, this group tended to be better educated, the majority of males having college degrees, and in much better financial states than the first wave immigrants.[18] Many of the Arabs that immigrated between 1950–1965 were members of the established elite in countries like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq who fled due to popular revolutions and the new regimes that came with them.[17] This is a trend that continues to the present, contributing to the "brain drain" problem throughout the Middle East. Moreover, whereas first wave immigrants tended to go directly to the United States from their country of origin, for second wave immigrants, the United States was often the second or third destination. Palestinian immigrants during this time commonly went to Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, or Syria before making the journey to the United States.[19]


The number of immigrants remained relatively small during the second wave of Arab immigration, primarily due to the restrictive immigration policies of the US. However, in 1965, the United States passed new immigration reforms allowing a new wave of Arabs to immigrate. This new group of Arab immigrants was demographically similar to those that immigrated during the past 20 years; however, this wave differed largely in its scope and in their reasons for immigrating. Between 1967 and 2003 some 757,626 Arabs came to the United States, nearly eleven times the number of immigrants during the second wave.[20] Moreover, during this time, in addition to increasingly regular conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, this era was marked by widespread "intra-Arab warfare" and a general increase in religious, ethnic and sectarian tensions in the region.[20] Also, the rise of Islamism in the Middle East during the past few decades helped further drain the region of its native Christian populations.[21] Just as with the previous influx of Arab immigrants, the third major Arab immigration trend consisted of more Palestinians than any other group.[20] The actual number of Palestinians who immigrated to the US during this time is not known because often the United States was not their first destination. Perhaps as many as a quarter of the nearly 800,000 Arabs were of Palestinian descent. The massive Palestinian exodus was further motivated by the 1967 Six Day War. Further spurring Palestinian immigration were the intifada uprisings of 1987–1993 and 2000–2005.

Arab American religions from 2002 Zogby International Institute Survey

Aside from Palestinians, Lebanese made up the next biggest group of immigrants during this time. From 1965 to 2005 around 135,000 Lebanese came to the United States.[22] The overwhelming majority, roughly 120,000, came after the commencement of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.[22] Furthering the emigration from Lebanon was Israel's 1982 invasion.[20] Egyptians and Iraqis also immigrated to the United States in large numbers during this period. From 1967 to 2003 more than 120,000 Egyptians have immigrated to the US.[23] Of this population, around 50,000 were Coptic Christians.[24] Also, since 1967, 108,000 Iraqis have come to the US.[23] Many fled during the country's drawn-out war with Iran lasting from 1980–1988. Again, in keeping with the "brain-drain" trend of the region, a large portion of these immigrants were educated professionals not willing to serve in the army. Harsh United Nations sanctions following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait further deteriorated Iraq's economy, increasing emigration. Between the first and second US invasions of Iraq roughly 53,000 Iraqis immigrated to the United States.[23] A sizable portion of Iraqi immigrants during this time were Chaldean Christians. For instance, in Detroit alone from 1960–2003 the Chaldean community grew from 3,000 to 80,000, out of a total population of around 150,000 Iraqi Chaldeans in the US as of 2006.[25] Large numbers of Syrians and Yemenis immigrated to the United States during this wave as well. Since 1967, some 36,000 Syrians have immigrated to the US.[26]

Arab Christians fleeing from religious persecution and civil unrest in the Middle East continue to emigrate into the U.S. during the 2000s and 2010s.


  • Arab American Community by National Origin according to the 2000 U.S. Census.[27]
Nationality Arab American Population (%)
Lebanese 34
Egyptian 11
Syrian 11
Palestinian 6
Iraqi* 3
Moroccan 3
Jordanian 3
Arab 15
Other Arab** 17

*Excludes those who identify as Assyrians in Iraq.

**Includes those from Algeria, Bahrain, Comors Islands, Djibouti, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, The United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Does not include person from Sudan, Somalia, or Mauritania.

  • Today, Arabs make up roughly 1.2 percent of the overall U.S. Population.[28]
  • Between 1990 and 2000 the Arab American population increased by an estimated 30 percent.[28]
  • Lebanese are the largest group of Arab Americans in every state except for New Jersey, where Egyptians make up the largest nationality.[27]
  • 80 percent of Arabs living in the United States are citizens.[29]
  • As of the 2000 Census, 40 percent of Arab Americans are first generation, a quarter of them having come since 1990.[29]
  • According to the 2000 Census, Arab Americans are more wealthy and better educated than the average American.[30]
  • According to the 2000 Census, 88 percent of Arab Americans work in the private sector. Specifically, 73 percent work in managerial, professional, technical, sales, or administrative fields.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kayyali, Randa (2006). The Arab Americans. Greenwood Press. p. 26. 
  2. ^ Kayyali, Randa (2006). The Arab Americans. Greenwood Press. p. 27. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "Demographics". Archived from the original on 2 December 2010. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  4. ^ "The Arab Community in California". Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  5. ^ "Arab American Demographics". 
  6. ^ McCarus, Ernest (1997). The Development of Arab-American Identity. The University of Michigan Press. p. 24. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Naff, Alixa (1993). Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Southern Illinois University. p. 2. 
  8. ^ Naff, Alixa (1993). Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Southern Illinois University. pp. 26–27. 
  9. ^ Naff, Alixa (1993). Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Southern Illinois University. p. 29. 
  10. ^ Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 58. 
  11. ^ Kayyali, Randa (2006). The Arab Americans. Greenwood Press. p. 30. 
  12. ^ a b Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 81. 
  13. ^ Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 97. 
  14. ^ Naff, Alixa (1993). Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Southern Illinois University. p. 97. 
  15. ^ a b Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 153. 
  16. ^ Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 181. 
  17. ^ a b Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 182. 
  18. ^ "Arab American". Archived from the original on 19 October 2010. Retrieved 17 October 2010. 
  19. ^ Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 179. 
  20. ^ a b c d Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 189. 
  21. ^ Kayyali, Randa (2006). The Arab Americans. Greenwood Press. p. 35. 
  22. ^ a b Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 207. 
  23. ^ a b c Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 190. 
  24. ^ Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 201. 
  25. ^ Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 191. 
  26. ^ Orfalea, Gregory (2006). The Arab Americans: A History. Olive Branch Press. p. 199. 
  27. ^ a b Kayyali, Randa (2006). The Arab Americans. Greenwood Press. p. 99. 
  28. ^ a b Kayyali, Randa (2006). The Arab Americans. Greenwood Press. p. 98. 
  29. ^ a b Kayyali, Randa (2006). The Arab Americans. Greenwood Press. p. 100. 
  30. ^ a b Kayyali, Randa (2006). The Arab Americans. Greenwood Press. p. 101. 

External links[edit]