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Before Syrian Refugees, America Welcomed Massive Iranian Influx

November 23, 2015

In the wake of the attacks in Paris apparently carried out by French and Belgian nationals, Republican leaders and a majority of the American people now stand against accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees. While the GOP-controlled House pass legislation erecting new roadblocks to those fleeing the sectarian carnage in Syria, 26 governors (almost all of them Republican) announced they would try to block their entry into their states. Among the 2016 GOP presidential field, Donald Trump declared his support for a database to track Muslims, while Marco Rubio and Ben Carson compared the refugees to Nazis and "rabid dogs," respectively. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush called for a religious test to allow only Christians fleeing the Syrian civil war into the United States. And while one Republican Congressman sneered that the refugees were only coming here for a "paid vacation," a Tennessee GOP lawmaker wants to round up those already in his state.
But once upon a time, the United States accepted hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a country where then as now some chanted "Death to America." That country would be Iran. During the very years when the Shah was deposed, Ayatollah Khomeini declared his Islamic Republic of Iran Americans were held hostage in Tehran for 444 days and the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein, Iranian exiles, refugees and asylum seekers flocked to the United States. And over the past few decades, they have become one of the greatest American immigration stories of all.

As the Migration Policy Institute documented in 2006, according to the Census Bureau the Iranian-born population of the U.S. reached 330,000 by 2000. But other estimates put the number of Iranian Americans "in the range of 691,000 to 1.2 million." And their ranks grew most rapidly during and after the collapse of the Shah's regime, the entrenchment of the Khomeini regime and the carnage of the Iraq-Iran war. As the New York Times reported in 1985 ("Emigres from Iran Begin Life Anew in America"):

No one knows exactly how many Iranians have come to the United States since the Ayatollah set up his Islamic fundamentalist regime in February 1979, but it is estimated that there are 800,000 of them in the country, mostly in the Washington, Los Angeles and New York areas...
Some are monarchists who want Riza Pahlevi on the throne once occupied by his father, Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi. Others are Western-educated, anti- monarchist students who favored the revolution but believe that the Ayatollah has betrayed it. And still others are partisans of the Ayatollah, and keep a low profile because of American hostility toward the current Iranian regime.

The Shah had been a strategic American ally from the moment the U.S. helped oust Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. But the Shah's importance grew in the 1970's as Iran was elevated to the role of regional hegemon advancing U.S. interests around the Persian Gulf. But it wasn't only those close to the Shah who fled to the U.S. during and after his fall. Three waves of Iranian immigrants came to America during the 1980's and 1990's, among them students, doctors, professors, engineers and other professional occupations. The majority were Shiite Muslims, but their numbers also included a gamut of persecuted religious and ethnic minorities including Bahai'is, Jews, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Azeris, Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmens. Those fleeing military service and the worsening economic conditions resulting from Western sanctions kept the number of new arrivals at or above 10,000 annually into the 21st century. (That continued even after President Bush declared Iran a part of the "Axis of Evil.") Largely clustered in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, and the Washington, DC-Baltimore metropolitan areas, Iranian-Americans are now among the best educated and financially accomplished of any community in the United States.

As the shameful history of the rejection of European Jews before and during World War II showed, the U.S. record of welcoming refugees from war-torn regions is far from perfect. But the 200,000 Hungarians who came here after the 1956 Soviet invasion, the 650,000 Cubans who fled Castro and the masses of Vietnamese (120,000 in 1975 alone) showed the U.S. was willing to accommodate many of those escaping Communist countries. Now with ISIS declaring it wants to eliminate the "gray zone" between the Islamic State and the West, the United States once again needs to show there is a red, white and blue space for Muslims in America. After all, we've done it before for the Iranian diaspora and the United States is a better place for it.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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