Immigration

Rally against "Muslim Ban"

Rally against "Muslim Ban" policies, Lourie Shaull, 2017

The immigration experience of Muslim Americans was filled with government actions whose repercussions limited the community’s growth, whether as an intentional or unintentional side effect.  

Although there is a debate as to whether the first Muslims who arrived in the U.S. were aboard Columbus’s ship, many scholars agree that one-third of African slaves brought to the U.S. in the 1700s were Muslims. Preserving their religion in secret, many slaves cultivated the first Muslim American community. In her book Not Quite American, Georgetown professor Yvonne Haddad, discusses the more generally-accepted history of Islam’s arrival to the New World. Migrating to the U.S. in the 1870s, males emigrated from the Syrian Province of the Ottoman Empire (4). Fleeing a crumbling economy, this community initially labeled themselves as Syrians, because they wanted to identify away from the 'Turk' label assigned to the Ottoman Empire they were leaving behind. Finally, settled into the U.S. as rural laborers, this Muslim American community decided to call themselves 'Arabs,' derived from their native language.

Prominent factors influencing their initial immigration were the strained economy in the Middle East and the promise of jobs in the U.S. After realizing the economic successes of family and friends in the U.S., an additional 4,300 Muslims immigrated to the U.S. between 1899-1914 (3). However, immigration was decelerated by the National Origin Act, also known as The Johnson-Reed Act. Implemented in 1924, a quota was expected on immigrants from each nationality. As a result, only one-hundred immigrants sourced from the Middle East were allowed entry each year.

The U.S.'s homogenous mindset in the 1920s was abandoned after WWII, given the decrease in population size. Coincidentally, the Muslim American population increased via the second wave of immigration. Furthermore, the 1960s saw exponential growth in Muslim immigration, first with 78,000 immigrants from Lebanon and then 30,000 from Eastern Europe (5). Moreover, in an attempt to remedy the previous anti-immigrant policies, the Immigration Act was passed in 1965, which resulted in diverse immigration, ranging from increased amounts of women, refugees, and Muslims of varying principles. This growth was dominant until the 1990s when the U.S.'s political conflicts with the Middle East slowed immigration’s rapid pace.  

Today, there is an unconfirmed census of self-identified Muslims in the U.S., but the estimation is approximately two to seven million Muslims. The majority composing this number are Sunni Muslims. However, the U.S. has become a sheltering country for Shi’ites, with more open practicers of Shia Islam in the U.S. than in their source countries. Additionally, the demographics of Muslims immigrating to the U.S. has shifted, with an increase in education and socioeconomic status prior to settling in the U.S. Many Muslim Americans are involved in leadership positions within medicine, technology, and education, with a rapid increase in additional sectors. Mostly comprising the middle-income class, this community continues to expand and adapt despite continual challenges in accessing the economic opportunities in the U.S.