UCLA International Institute, February 15, 2023 — Take a quick stroll down Westwood Boulevard near the UCLA campus, and it’s hard to miss the profusion of Persian restaurants, markets, bookstores, ice-cream vendors and other businesses catering to the local Iranian population. For the past four decades, the area has been a major hub of Los Angeles’ Iranian community, which today numbers nearly 138,000.
But while California in particular — and Western states in general — account for the largest portion of the 400,000 to 620,000 people of Iranian ancestry in the United States, things are changing, especially among younger Iranians, according to UCLA sociologist Kevan Harris, who has studied the history of Iranian immigration to the U.S. and the shifting demographics of the Iranian-American diaspora.
Harris will present his research this week as part of the Iranian Diaspora in Global Perspective conference at UCLA, at which more than 50 scholars and practitioners will discuss the past, present and future of the Iranian diaspora in the U.S. and other countries around the world.
Attending the conference
Due to space limitations, registration is required for the Feb. 16–17 conference. Register here.
The Iranian Diaspora in Global Perspective conference is co-sponsored by UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern
Studies, the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University, and the Iranian and Persian
Gulf Studies program at Oklahoma State University.
Iranian immigration: From a trickle to a wave
Immigrants from Iran began to arrive in the U.S. in the early 20th century, often members of the country’s religious minorities, including Armenian and Assyrian Christians and Jews. In the 1950s, there was an increase in immigration, and in the 1960s and ’70s, an even larger group of younger Iranians and professionals came, often on student or non-resident visas.
But the first major wave of Iranian immigrants arrived in the years immediately preceding and following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which deposed longtime monarch Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and brought Islamist revolutionaries following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. At the time, Harris noted, U.S. immigration law gave precedence to family members of U.S. residents, allowing Iranians already settled in America to bring over spouses, parents and children. Between 1978 and 1980, more than 35,000 Iranians arrived in the U.S.
Since then, there have been spikes in immigration in the late 1990s and early 2010s, with a drop-off during the Trump presidency, according to several sources, Harris said.
Kevan Harris/ UCLA
The above graph, which tracks annual immigration as a percentage of overall Iranian immigration, shows a sharp spike around the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as well as a bump in the 2010s.
Where do Iranians live in the U.S.? It’s changing
Harris and graduate students from the UCLA Department of Sociology have analyzed data on the age, gender and geographic distribution of the Iranian-American diaspora. They found that the median age of first-generation Iranians in the U.S. — those who have immigrated from Iran — is between 45 and 70, while the median age of American-born second-generation Iranians is between 20 and 40.
And with Iranians are continuing to arrive — 50% of first-generation immigrants have come to the U.S. since 1994 — and a growing number of people of Iranian ancestry having been born and raised here, patterns of settlement have shifted, Harris said. For instance, in a growing trend, younger first-generation Iranians — those between the ages of 25 and 34 — have been more likely than their older counterparts to eschew California and the West Coast for states in the South and Midwest.
Among both male and female first-generation Iranians, a higher percentage of those in the youngest age group (25–34) live in Southern and Midwestern states. (Data from the American Survey 2015–19.)
By continuing to study the evolving demographics, Harris hopes to not only shed further light on the Iranian-American diasporic experience but to help to place it in a broader context.
“Iranians are now among the top 25 immigrant groups in the country by population size,” he said, “and there is a lot of research we can still do in order to bring the wide array of Iranian-American stories into conversation with other migrant experiences in the United States.”
Harris said he eventually plans to compile all his demographic findings into a publicly available online dashboard.