Event—Scholarly Seminars

Ashley Johnson Bavery, Eastern Michigan University, and Stacy Fahrenthold, University of California-Davis


The Unauthorized Mahjar: Syrian Muslim Migrations Between Mexico and the Midwest in the Twentieth Century, Ashley Johnson Bavery, Eastern Michigan University

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, thousands of Muslim immigrants left the Arabic-speaking countries of the Mediterranean known as the Mashriq, for Mexico, creating a Mahjar (Syrian-Lebanese diaspora) that stretched across the American Midwest. The United States officially categorized these immigrants as white Europeans in 1909, allowing Syrian migrants’ legal entrance into the United States, but along U.S. ports of entry, immigration officials used discretionary laws and border practices to exclude migrants with Muslim names. As a result, Muslim Syrians hoping to reach the United States relied on a vast smuggling network that facilitated their journeys through Mexico and eventual unauthorized crossing over the U.S. southern border. Mexico, however, became much more than a “back door” or transit nation for Syrian migrants. After leaving Greater Syria, many migrants stayed in Mexico for weeks, months, or even years, where they learned Spanish, married Mexican women, built Mexican businesses, and even naturalized as Mexican citizens. This paper examines the unauthorized and authorized routes taken by Mahjaris, from the Mediterranean through Mexico and into the American Midwest to rethink scholarship on border crossing and migration. Ultimately, it seeks to demonstrate that throughout the twentieth century, Mahjari migration challenged U.S. immigration practices at the border by creating invisible kinship networks that allowed Muslim Mahjaris to conduct trade and migrate in either direction depending on the respective political and economic climate in the United States and Mexico.

Unmentionables: Smuggling and the Syrian Lace Trade in the Borderlands, Stacy D. Fahrenthold, University of California-Davis

This paper examines the interrelationships between Syrian immigration, the textile industry, and smuggling in the US-Mexico borderlands between 1900 and 1934. Syrian immigration to Mexico increased significantly during this period, driven by the expansion of the Syrian diaspora’s textile industry and by tightening immigration restrictions across the hemisphere. Tracking one network of Syrian lace merchants also suspected of migrant smuggling, the paper lays out how “unmentionable” circuits of labor produced the laces peddlers carried as well as the illegal Syrian immigrant.

Respondent: Nadine Naber, UIC