Iranian immigration to the United States has a much less storied history than those immigrants hailing from other parts of the world. By the time the Iranians began immigrating to the U.S. in large numbers, there were already centuries-old immigrant populations in major U.S. cities. The Irish, Italians, and Germans in particular had established homes in America before any significant number of Iranians began immigrating to the U.S.
In fact, Iranian immigration to the U.S. barely existed until the middle of the twentieth century. There were outliers, however, the first Iranian born U.S. citizen was actually naturalized in 1875.
The First Iranian Immigrant: Hajj Sayyah
Image Source: Iranicaonline
Mizra Mohammad Ali (better known as Hajj Sayyah) was born in Mahallat, a small town in Central Iran, in 1836. Sayyah was a student of Western philosophy and government. He grew dissatisfied with autocratic rule in Iran in his early twenties and decided to leave so that he could explore the Western democracies he had read about.
Sayyah traveled throughout Europe and then eventually made it to New York City. He stayed in the U.S. for ten years and developed a relationship with President Ulysses S. Grant. Through his connections to the U.S. government, Sayyah was able to become a U.S. citizen on May 26th, 1875, making him the first Iranian-born U.S. Citizen. Sayyah eventually returned to Iran and played a vital role in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906.
The Lost Years: 1875-1950
Very few Iranians are documented to have immigrated to the United States from the time Sayyah became a citizen to the middle of the twentieth century. Documented is the key word in the preceding sentence because the immigration records of that era are flawed.
The American immigration authorities did not correctly classify people from the Middle East. Before 1900, all immigrants from the region were classified as “Arab,” with no delineation of their nationality. After 1900, the term “Syrian” became more popular than Arab, and replaced the term in U.S. government files. It was not until 1925 that Iranian immigrants began being classified as Iranian, and between 1925 and 1950, only 2,000 Iranians immigrated to the United States.
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The Education Boom: 1950-1979
In the middle of the twentieth century, Iran was undergoing a period of modernization. Close ties with the U.S. and increased oil revenues allowed Iran to industrialize at a rapid pace. Industrialization led to the emergence of a strong middle class and the need for more white-collar workers. The Iranian economy desperately needed professionals to work in the new industries, but there were not quality training programs and universities in Iran.
The solution to this problem was for students to study abroad and then return to Iran. Most of these students traveled to the United States to study at the universities. Thousands of young Iranians traveled to the U.S. every year. After completing their studies, they planned on returning to Iran and working in the new industrial sector.
However, these plans were canceled due to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Once the Ayatollah took control of the government, these students were either not allowed to or had no desire to return to Iran. These bright young men would make up the first pillars of the Iranian-American community.
The “Refugees”: 1979-2001
Image Source: Wikimedia
In 1979, Islamists overthrew the secular Iranian government. Ayatollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader and attempted to remove all Western influence from the nation. Many of the Iranian elite and secular government officials were forced to flee the country and most of them immigrated to the United States.
These Iranians were essentially refugees even though the U.S. government did not grant them refugee status. It is that over one million Iranians immigrated to the United States between 1979 and 2001. This mass exodus effectively removed the entire non-Muslim population from Iran.
Post 9/11: 2001 To Present
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 greatly diminished Iranian immigration to the United States. Although Iran was not linked to the terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush included Iran in his “Axis of Evil,” which negatively impacted the American public’s view of Iran and the Iranian people. The U.S. government restricted the number of Iranian immigrant and refugee visas in the immediate aftermath of the attack, and there have been far fewer Iranian immigrants entering the country since 9/11.
It’s hard to say if the U.S. will ever open its borders to Iranian immigrants again in the way that it did in the twentieth century. It is undeniable, however, that Iranian Americans now make up a significant segment of the U.S. population and many that immigrated in the past have become valuable members of U.S. society.