Lifetimes of Instability: the Consequences of Excluding Syrian Boys on the Progressive Era US-Mexico Border


  • Ashley Johnson Bavery Eastern Michigan University Author



Childhood, United States, immigration policy, Syrian immigrants


In the first decade of the twentieth century, United States immigration inspectors at the US-Mexico border excluded hundreds of young Syrians, turning many toward unstable lives as unauthorized migrants in North America. Inspectors combined Progressive Era concerns about child labor with orientalist and racist views of migrants from the Ottoman Empire to conclude that unaccompanied young Syrians posed a threat to the American family and workplace and should be sent back across the Atlantic. And while some excluded boys did return to Syria, the majority found ways to enter the United States without authorization. Some sought the help of smugglers and others obtained falsified papers that claimed uncles, brothers, and family friends as their fathers and accompanied them across the border. While these tactics worked, illicit border crossing launched young migrants into an unauthorized life marked by precarity and fear. In fact, oral histories conducted by the author have revealed that young boys who entered the United States without authorization often ended up in unstable professions connected to urban underworlds. Ultimately, this article seeks to demonstrate the ways hardline immigration policies of the early twentieth century targeting young boys set them on paths toward precarity as they navigated lives in the United States.

Author Biography

  • Ashley Johnson Bavery, Eastern Michigan University

    Ashley Johnson Bavery is Associate Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University, where she teaches courses on race, immigration, and the urban United States. Her first book, Bootlegged Aliens: Immigration Politics on America's Northern Border (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020) won the First Book Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. She has published articles in the Journal of American History and the Journal of Urban History and is currently at work on a book that examines Muslim immigrants, race, and industrialization in the twentieth-century Midwest.


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