Armenian Return Migration from North America and the Politics of Citizenship in the Ottoman Empire and the United States, 1890–1910

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
David Gutman, Manhattanville College
This paper investigates the contested legal fate of the many hundreds of Armenian migrants who returned to the Ottoman Empire from North America after naturalizing as United States citizens. Within the context of the emergence of transnational Armenian revolutionary movements in the late 1880s, the Ottoman state feared the return of Ottoman Armenians who had naturalized as United States citizens while abroad, believing that politically “suspect” returnees would use their status to claim extraterritorial protection from prosecution under Ottoman law.  For Ottoman elites, these returnees posed a threat both to the empire’s sovereignty and political stability.

The status of naturalized Armenian returnees was initially an issue of contention between the Ottoman Empire and the United States. Over the course of the 1890s and early 1900s, however, Ottoman efforts to redefine the legal status of naturalized Armenian returnees benefitted from growing (often racialized) anxiety among United States political elites about the relationship between migration and political instability. By the first years of the twentieth century, the United States and Ottoman governments reached an agreement stripping most naturalized Armenian returnees of their United States citizenship, a decision that would place many of these migrants in a legally ambiguous and vulnerable position.

This paper is an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between the Ottoman state and its Armenian population in the decades before the 1915 genocide.  It also reveals a surprising and unexpected convergence between the Ottoman and United States governments over questions of migration and political stability, especially in the context of popular moral outrage in the United States over the treatment of Ottoman Armenians.  Finally, this case study also sheds unique light on the intersection between border crossing, legal identity, and sovereignty.

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