Iranians in Texas

They fled a revolution in the Middle East, to experience discriminatory policies and stereotyping in the West.

Iranians in Texas: Migration, Politics, and Ethnic Identity. By Mohsen Mobasher. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2012. 211 pp.

Mohsen Mobasher tells an overlooked story, not just about the large Iranian population that moved to the United States (and to Texas, in particular) during and following the Iran’s 1979 revolution, but a broader story about the contentious politics of migration in the U.S. and the way a group of migrants from the Middle East have negotiated place, identity, and discriminatory politics. Mobasher, who migrated from Iran to the U.S. in 1978 as a teenager, begins this book by telling his own story, of the difficulties he and his family faced with integration and acculturation. He concludes: “Although I have spent two-thirds of my life in this country, developed strong friendship ties with many Americans, and gained a deep appreciation for American culture, I still feel like a foreigner, an outsider on the margins of American society.”

The feeling of marginalization, he says, is shared by many Iranian immigrants. He argues that it is largely caused by the contentious political relationship between the U.S. and Iran, distorted media images and stereotypes of Iranians (and, more generally, people from the Middle East), and the profiling and discriminatory policies that were put in to effect first during the Iran hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981 and later, after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Mobasher focuses on a single group of migrants that came to the U.S. shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, but by no means is this group homogenous. To describe and interpret the stories of first and second generation Iranian immigrants, he spent ten years conducting research including formal and informal interviews, two surveys, and close observation. Iranians in exile in Texas (and more broadly across the United States) are diverse not only concerning ethnic and religious identities, but they are divided as well in terms of national, political, and cultural identity in this country. As Mobasher points out, many Iranian immigrants were (and continue to be) forced to manage the stigma of being Iranian—and some go to great lengths to do so. Drawing on interviews with Iranian immigrants in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, Mobasher provides examples of how Iranians deal with this stigma, such as avoiding speaking Persian in public places, keeping hidden the fact that they are from Iran, or by simply calling themselves “Persian” rather than Iranian. His examples are common to the integration experiences of Iranians on a community, local, national, and transnational scale. He characterizes the struggle of the Iranian immigrant in the U.S. as a kind of “double exile,” in which one is neither comfortable nor feels wanted in the U.S. or in Iran.

Mobasher analyzes identity and integration from a theoretical perspective that takes into account the migrant-sending and migrant-receiving societies equally. More specifically, he highlights the political nature of immigration, and the importance of the context of political relations between sending and receiving countries, rather than focusing primarily on issues of human capital and cultural practices of migrants within their host societies. To do this, he draws largely on two important events that shaped the migration and integration experiences of many first and second generation Iranians in America: the hostage crisis and 9/11. After each of these events, he argues, discriminatory and exclusionary policies and practices were put into place that exacerbated the feelings of marginalization of many Iranians in the country. For example, he says, thousands of students of Iranian nationality were suddenly forced to report their location and visa status to the closest Immigration and Naturalization Service office. Also, he points out, the Carter administration then barred Iranians from entering the U.S., and such difficulties continued even after the end of the hostage crisis. Ironically, many Iranians began feeling like hostages themselves, as they were unable for years to return home to see family (an experience Mobasher shared). Mobasher lays out similar examples of policy in the post-9/11 era, when President George W. Bush labeled Iran part of the “axis of evil.” During this time, many Iranians felt the same sense of fear, shame, and self-loathing as they did during the hostage crisis, Mobasher says.

Iranians in Texas argues that U.S. immigration policies combined with the negative media images of Iranians and Muslims have hindered Iranian ethnic and political identity formation in the U.S., and negatively affected the attitudes of many Iranians toward the U.S. government and Americans in general. Mobasher says that the discriminatory policies and distorted images have “damaged Iranians’ confidence in the American government and people and pushed many naturalized Iranians to be less interested in social issues of U.S. society and less involved in its politics.” His research divides Iranians among those that are critical of the U.S. government, those that praise it, and those who are ambivalent about it.

This is a valuable addition to the literature on Middle Eastern migration to the U.S. and Mobasher’s study contains some useful insights for policy makers about the paths to integration among immigrants of all types and backgrounds. Interestingly, for example, he tells of how Iranians in the U.S. became more active on a community and local level after 9/11, creating nonprofit, grassroots, civil liberties, and educational organizations such as the National Iranian American Council. They also became more active in voting, lobbying, and running for public office. This community, organizational, and political participation, Mobasher argues, helps Iranians not only to overcome the stereotype of being a part of the “axis of evil” but also to increase their visibility at various levels of American society. And such activities will ultimately assist Iranians in making the transition from feeling like Iranians in America to Iranian Americans.

Chris Ulack is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. His focus is on migration and refugee issues in the Middle East and the United States. In 2011, he received a Hogg Foundation for Mental Health fellowship to research the resettlement of Iraqi refugees in Austin, Texas. He previously worked as a resettlement program supervisor for Refugee Services of Texas.