Deporting Ottoman Americans

an investigative podcast series
by Chris Gratien

New: Episode 3

How do you deport someone whose country no longer exists? This podcast addresses this question through the stories of Middle Eastern migrants subject to deportation from the United States during the 1930s. Click to learn more.

After decades of liberal policies that allowed for millions of immigrants to enter the US, American society took a profoundly insular turn in the 1920s. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act established strict immigration quotas aimed at keeping out Southern Europeans, Asians, and anyone who might be judged as less than white. After the First World War, the government also built up its systemic capacity to deport individuals. By the time of the Great Depression, the US deported many thousands of people per year, and among them were some of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who had left the Ottoman Empire for a better life in America. But the Ottoman Empire had collapsed during the war. Displacement, ethnic conflict, imperial competition, and colonial rule had radically changed post-Ottoman societies and the geopolitical map. So while US Immigration and Nationalization Services found it increasingly easy to sentence these former Ottomans to deportation, it became increasingly difficult to identify where such deportees would go. Deporting Ottoman Americans involved legal and diplomatic maneuvering that tested the limits and exposed the contradictions of an emboldened American deportation state.

This podcast series employs US archival records as well as a trove of other historical resources and the contributions of numerous specialists in the field to show what deportation meant for people who fell through the cracks of the Middle East's fractured postwar landscape. Ottoman Americans did not comprise the majority of people deported from the US; yet, due to their unique vulnerability and the contrived measures required to deport them, their experiences embody the uncertainly, precarity, and injustice faced by so many migrants during a global period of xenophobia and economic strife. Through their stories, we interrogate discourses of morality, criminality, and illegality that have become so central in our immigration debates and show that deportation was not just a policy that impacted "alien" others. It has touched millions of American families and helped shape the national identity of the United States today.

Deporting Ottoman Americans is a scholarly project that draws on contributions from academic researchers to further public knowledge about the history of migration and the relationship between the United States and the modern Middle East. If you have something you'd like to contribute, please contact

Click for current contributor list and further reading

Chris Gratien, University of Virginia
Chief Consultant
Emily Pope-Obeda, Harvard University
Script Editor
Sam Dolbee, Harvard University

Recorded Guests
Kalliopi Amygdalou, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy
Reem Bailony, Agnes Scott College
Lerna Ekmekçioğlu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Stacy Fahrenthold, University of California, Davis
Linda Gordon, New York University
David Gutman, Manhattanville College
Claudrena Harold, University of Virginia
Torrie Hester, University of Saint Louis
Hidetaka Hirota, Waseda University
Aslı Iğsız, New York University
Panayotis League, Harvard University
Nazan Maksudyan, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient
Sarah Milov, University of Virginia
Devin Naar, University of Washington, Seattle
Graham Pitts, Georgetown University
Laura Robson, Portland State University
Victoria Saker Woeste, American Bar Association
Nadim Shehadi, Tufts University
Ronald Grigor Suny, University of Michigan
Vahe Tachjian, Houshamadyan
John Torpey, City University of New York, Graduate Center

Further Reading

Balderrama, Francisco E. and Raymond Rodríguez. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Barkan, Elliott Robert. Immigrants in American History: Arrival, Adaptation, and Integration. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

Garland, Libby. After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965. 2014/2018.

Gualtieri, Sarah M. A. Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. University of California Press, 2009.

Hester, Torrie. Deportation: The Origins of U.S. Policy. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Kanstroom, Dan. Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History. Harvard Univ. Press, 2010.

Khater, Akram Fouad. Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920. University of California Press, 2001.

Laliōtu, Ioanna. Transatlantic Subjects: Acts of Migration and Cultures of Transnationalism between Greece and America. University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Naff, Alixa. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford University Press, 2015.

Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press, 2004/2014.

Episode 1
Deporting Ottoman Americans

Most Americans descend from people born elsewhere. But what if instead of simply a nation of immigrants, we see our society as a eugenicist project forged by immigration quotas and selective deportation policies? This proposal may fly in the face of the civic nationalism many hold dear. Generations of politicians have repeated the mantra that anyone can be an American and that our identity is defined not by race or blood but by the embrace of laws and ideals. Yet many historians have dedicated their lives to studying the pivotal role of exclusion in making American identity through the histories of those who were deprived of the American dream because of race, color, and creed. In this introductory episode, we talk to scholars who have written about the emergence of deportation as a method of population control and punishment wielded by the US government on a mass scale since the 1920s. Then, we set the stage for the rest of our series by considering how people from the former Ottoman Empire were part of both the making and unmaking of America as a nation of immigrants.
Click for sources, transcript, and additional listening

Episode 2
Syrian in Sioux Falls

In the years after the world war that ravaged the Ottoman Empire, Hassan left his native village in modern-day Lebanon to join his parents and siblings in the growing Midwest town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. To do so, he had to sidestep the stringent immigration quotas newly implemented by the US. But years later, when the authorities learned that he entered and was living in the US illegally, he was threatened with deportation. Through Hassan's story, we'll learn about the experience of Arab migration to the United States and get to know the Syrian-American community that despite numbering in the hundreds of thousands by the 1920s, found itself repeatedly compelled to prove its worthiness to be included in a society where nativism was on the rise and being entitled to full citizenship often meant being considered white.
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Episode 3

Leo lived in New York City with his family. Born and educated in the cosmopolitan Ottoman capital of Istanbul, he was now part of the vibrant and richly-textured social fabric of America's largest metropolis as one one of the tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews who migrated to the US. Though he spoke four languages, Leo held jobs such as garbage collector and shoeshine during the Great Depression. Sometimes he couldn't find any work at all. But his woes were compounded when immigration authorities discovered he had entered the US using fraudulent documents. Yet Leo was not alone; his story was the story of many Jewish migrants throughout the world during the interwar era who saw the gates closing before them at every turn. Through Leo and his brush with deportation, we examine the history of the US as would-be refuge for Jews facing persecution elsewhere, highlight the indelible link between anti-immigrant policy and illicit migration, and explore transformations in the history of race in New York City through the history of Leo and his family.
Click for images, bonus materials, and more.

Episode 4
All's Fair in Love and War

Lafky had seen her share of drama well before her bitter divorce. Born near the Ottoman city of Izmir, she had come to the US as a teenager after war had destroyed her entire community. Her family was made refugees by fighting between the invading Greek army and the Turkish national resistance. Izmir was burned to the ground and over a million Anatolian Christians were transferred to Greece as part of an “exchange of populations.” Peace reigned after that, but trouble often followed these refugees wherever they went. That was the case for Lafky, whose vengeful ex-husband tried to have her deported from the US. Through Lafky’s fight to stay in the country with her American-born daughter, we'll confront the cruel injustices that only women migrants faced as we explore the fate of the Ottoman Empire's Greek citizens.

Episode 5
Lest They Perish

During the First World War, America and its Allies decried the mass deportation and killing of Anatolian Christians by the Ottoman government. Yet the US government did everything it could to prevent impoverished and displaced Armenians and Assyrians from coming to America after the fighting had stopped. So when human smugglers took pity on Thomas, a young Assyrian man from Diyarbekir, and helped him reunite with his mother in America, they were  perhaps only using a profitable crime to right a wrong first inflicted by callous postwar immigration policies. When Thomas was ultimately detected by the authorities, his deportation case became part of a massive crackdown on illicit migration between Cuba and the US that involved many formerly Ottoman Christians. But would the US really deport survivors of one of history's first genocides to a place they could no longer call home? The stories of people like Thomas allow us to test the limits of postwar xenophobia, the capacity of the deportation state, and America’s status as refuge for those “yearning to breathe free.”

Episode 6
Asylum Stories

Akif "the Inventor" was an eccentric Turkish dentist living comfortably in the US. Apraham was a poor Armenian immigrant from an Anatolian town completely destroyed during the Turkish War of Independence. They might not have had much in common. But after both being hospitalized for psychiatric problems, they shared a strange ordeal created by US deportation policies. Through their stories, we study the migrant experience at its most vulnerable, and we learn about the lengths to which the cash-strapped US government would go in order to deport those who became a financial burden.

Episode 7
American Morality Tales

Heartwarming stories about the valorous deeds of migrants serve to humanize marginalized members of our societies and demonstrate their worth to a fearful or skeptical public. But what happens when migrants turn out to be just like us? By revisiting a prior case and exploring its many shades of gray, we interrogate both how and why morality is so central immigration debates both past and present.

Episode 8
Syrian by Circumstance

When Mary was arrested for prostitution, her family became fed up and left her at the mercy of the law. But as someone who had migrated to the US as a child, Mary's punishment could be deportation, in this case to Syria. What made Mary's predicament so bizarre was that she had never been to the Middle East or anywhere in the former Ottoman Empire and had no real relation to the region. Unusual circumstances had caused the US to judge her to be deportable to the French Mandate of Syria. Through Mary's travails, we delve deeper into the legal proceedings surrounding deportation and the denial of women's rights during an era in which international law could do little to curtail increasingly cavalier deportation states.

Episode 9
Almost Stateless

Frank Johnson had little respect for the law. He never even used his legal name. So it's no surprise that in his deportation hearings, he tried to deceive the authorities by mystifying his national origins with far-fetched testimonies. What he probably did not anticipate was the extent to which his home country would actually aid in his aversion of deportation by denying his right to citizenship. Yet when the US failed to find a country that would claim him, he was frozen in a semi-stateless stasis, endlessly awaiting either deportation or release from federal detention. The story of "Frank" and deportees of his kind shed light on the role of diplomacy in efforts to expel unwanted migrants and the strange way in which states throughout the world conspired against migrants through their exclusionary practices.

Episode 10
A Tale of Two Palestinians

In Mandatory Palestine, two divergent communities of Jewish immigrants and a local Arab population began to emerge, as the political future of the region became more contentious. But did it matter whether one was Jewish or Arab when it came to deportation? This episode looks at the story of two people theoretically judged to Palestinian--one Jewish and one Arab--and their experience with the American deportation state. Did ethnoreligious identity matter when it came to issues of nationality and immigration? Or does the history of immigration and deportation during the interwar period reveal the emergence of "two Palestines?"

Episode 11
The Second Exchange

Nearly half a million Greeks from both Greece and the Ottoman Empire had come to the US, but such migrants were among those subject to the most merciless immigration quotas after 1924. As a consequence, huge numbers were deported during the 1930s, so many that they earned a separate series pertaining to their deportation in the archives of the US Department of State. Yet the mass deportation of Ottoman-born Greeks, who were a growing subset of the transnational Greek community, would not have been possible without the seemingly unrelated population exchange agreements with Turkey over a decade prior. The cases of Greek deportees shed light on the quiet "second exchange" involving Ottoman-born Greeks deported from the US to Greece in the 1930s.

Episode 12
Sex in the Salt City

Tommy was the husband of a madam in Syracuse, a growing industrial city in Upstate New York. But when the brothel got busted, Tommy, as a native of Ottoman Macedonia, faced potential deportation. The highly involved legal case against him hinged on whether he was indeed a partner in his wife's business. In the process of investigating, the US government created a wealth of documentation about the urban underground in the "Salt City." Through Tommy's brush with the law, we delve deeper into the role of immigrant life during the Depression era, interrogating the place occupied by vice as both a moral and legal offense within American discourses about migration.

Episode 13
Impossible Islands

John came to the US with his father from a small island in the Aegean Sea. The US government ordered him deported decades later for a heinous offense: "carnal abuse of a female child." Acknowledging his guilt, John's only defense against deportation was "I grew up here." Yet because of the peculiar geopolitical position of his native island, the US could not determine to where John should indeed be deported nor find a state willing to issue him a passport. John was the opposite of a sympathetic migrant, and deportation might have even seemed a light penalty for his grave crimes. But the ultimate resolution of his case was truly bizarre, and as we learn, the diplomatic maneuvering that occurred in his name would have potential ramifications for many others.


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