The first Arabs immigrated to the United States in the 1880s. Most of them came from Greater Syria, which is present-day Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Syria. Typically, immigrants made the journey to escape economic struggles and to pursue the American dream. In recent years, the migration from Greater Syria to the United States has been driven largely by political unrest and religious conflict in the Middle East.
The majority of the “Syrian” Arab immigrants were Christian, poor, and illiterate. They created their own churches, tried to make a living, and generally kept to themselves. Many of them were traveling peddlers going from place to place selling dry goods. Arab immigrants before World War I were classified as “Turks” because they came from lands (Greater Syria) ruled by the Ottoman Empire. They were then renamed “Syrians” or at times “Arabians” following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
In 1924, US Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act after the Ottoman government places restrictions on emigration in effort to keep its populace in Greater Syria. The Johnson-Reed Act limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origin quota. The United States government helped in this effort by the creation of the Quota Act, which provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality and reduced immigration from the eastern Mediterranean for over 40 years. The second significant wave of Syrian immigration occurred as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting labor to the United States. The Act opened the doors once again to Arab immigration, mostly Syrian Muslims, who were seeking safety from persecution and looking for education and employment opportunities.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of Syrian immigrants in the United States tripled between 1960 and 2000 from 17,000 to 55,000. Between 2000 and 2010, the number increased by 9% to 60,000. Between 2010 and 2014, as the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, the Syrian population jumped by 43%. The number continues to grow.
Today, the United Nations considers Syria to be the worst humanitarian crisis in our history. The Obama administration had raised the overall refugee ceiling in 2016 to 85,000, and between 2015 and 2017 approximately 17,000 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States. However, the change in administration has brought a change in policy. At a time when they need our help most, the future remains unclear and unpromising for Syrian refugees.
Pictures from Arab Americans in Metro Detroit: A Pictorial History (2001, Arcadia Publishing)