Muslim immigration has bounced back
The events of Sept. 11 transformed life for Muslims in the United States, and the flow of immigrants from countries such as Egypt, Pakistan...
The New York Times
NEW YORK — The events of Sept. 11 transformed life for Muslims in the United States, and the flow of immigrants from countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and Morocco thinned drastically.
But five years later, as the United States wrestles with questions of terrorism, civil liberties and immigration control, Muslims appear to be moving here again in surprising numbers, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Homeland Security and the Census Bureau.
Immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia are planting new roots in states from Virginia to Texas to California.
In 2005, more people from Muslim countries became legal permanent U.S. residents — nearly 96,000 — than in any year in the previous two decades. More than 40,000 of them were admitted last year, the highest annual number since the terrorist attacks, according to data on 22 countries provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
Many have made the journey unbowed by tales of immigrant hardship, and despite their own opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East. They come seeking the same promise that has drawn foreigners to the U.S. for many decades, according to a range of experts and immigrants: economic opportunity and political freedom.
Those lures, both powerful and familiar, have been enough to conquer fears that America is an inhospitable place for Muslims.
"America has always been the promised land for Muslims and non-Muslims," said Behzad Yaghmaian, an Iranian exile and author of "Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West."
"Despite Muslims' opposition to America's foreign policy, they still come here because the United States offers what they're missing at home."
Muslims have been settling in the United States in significant numbers since the mid-1960s, after immigration quotas that favored Eastern Europeans were lifted. Spacious mosques opened in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York as a new, highly educated Muslim population took hold.
Over the next three decades, the story of Muslim migration to the United States was marked by growth and prosperity. A larger percentage of immigrants from Muslim countries have graduate degrees than other American residents, and their average salary is about 20 percent higher, according to Census Bureau data.
But Sept. 11 altered the course of Muslim life in America. Mosques were vandalized. Hate crimes rose. Thousands of men were placed into deportation proceedings, and others were arrested in an array of terrorism cases.
Some Muslims changed their names to avoid job discrimination, making Mohammed "Moe," and Osama "Sam." Scores of families left for Canada or returned to their native countries.
Yet this period also produced something strikingly positive, in the eyes of many Muslims: They began to mobilize politically and socially. Across the country, grass-roots organizations expanded to educate Muslims on civil rights, register them to vote and lobby against new federal policies such as the Patriot Act.
"There was the option of becoming introverted or extroverted," said Agha Saeed, national chairman of the American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections, an umbrella organization in Newark, Calif., created in 2003. "We became extroverted."
In some ways, new Muslim immigrants may be better off in the post-9/11 America they encounter today, say Muslim leaders and academics: Islamic centers are more organized and resources, such as English instruction and free legal assistance, more accessible.
But outside these newly organized mosques, life remains strained for many Muslims.
To avoid taunts, women are often warned not to wear headscarves in public. Muslims continue to endure long waits at airports, where they are often tagged for questioning because of their names or dress.
To some longtime immigrants, the life embraced by newcomers will never compare to the peaceful era that came before.
Up to 6 million Muslims live in the United States, by some estimates. While the Census Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security do not track religion, both provide statistics on immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries. It is presumed that many of these immigrants are Muslim, but people of other faiths, such as Iraqi Chaldeans and Egyptian Copts, also have come in appreciable numbers.
Immigration from these regions slowed considerably after Sept. 11. Fewer people were issued green cards and nonimmigrant visas. By 2003, the number of immigrants arriving from 22 Muslim countries had declined by more than a third. For students, tourists and others from these countries who were designated as nonimmigrants, the drop was even more drastic, with total visits down by nearly half.
The falloff affected immigrants from across the post-9/11 world as America tightened its borders, but it was most pronounced among those moving here from Pakistan, Morocco, Iran and other Muslim nations.
Several factors might explain the drop: a higher number of visa applications were rejected because of heightened security procedures, said officials at the State Department and Department of Homeland Security; and fewer people applied for visas.
But starting in 2004, the numbers rebounded. The tally of people coming to live in the United States from Bangladesh, Turkey, Algeria and other Muslim countries rose by 20 percent, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data.
The increase also was notable among foreigners with nonimmigrant visas. More than 55,000 Indonesians, for instance, were issued those visas last year, compared with roughly 36,000 in 2002.
The rise does not reflect relaxed security measures, but a higher number of visa applications and greater efficiency in processing them, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of Homeland Security.
Finding their way here
Like other immigrants, Muslims find their way to the United States in myriad ways: they come as refugees, or as students and tourists who sometimes overstay their welcome. Others arrive with immigrant visas secured by relatives here. A lucky few win the green-card lottery.
Nur Fatima, a Pakistani woman who moved to Brooklyn six months ago and promptly shed her hijab, arrived at a propitious time. Had she come three years earlier, she would have seen a neighborhood in crisis.
Hundreds of Pakistani immigrants disappeared after being asked to register with the government. Thirty shops closed along a stretch of Coney Island Avenue known as Little Pakistan. The number of new Urdu-speaking students at the local elementary school, Public School 217, dropped by half in the 2002-03 school year, according to the New York City Department of Education.
But then Little Pakistan got organized. A local businessman, Moe Razvi, converted a former store into a community center offering legal advice, computer classes and English instruction. Local Muslim leaders began meeting with federal agents to soothe relations.
The annual Pakistan Independence Day parade is now awash in U.S. flags.
It is a transformation seen in Muslim immigrant communities around the nation.
"They have to prove that they are living here as Muslim Americans rather than living as Pakistanis and Egyptians and other nationalities," said Zahid H. Bukhari, director of the American Muslim Studies Program at Georgetown University.
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