IEHS Online

Yukako Otori, “A Girl Without a Country”

Jacob A. Riis, “Children’s Playground on Ellis Island (roof garden).” c. 1900 https://collections.mcny.org/Collection/Children%27s-Playground-on-Ellis-Island-(roof-garden).-The-Children-of-detained-or-waiting-immigrants.-2F3XC5E6RXM.html

On April 18, 1905, the Board of Special Inquiry at the port of Boston excluded Mariam Zartarian, age 15, because she was afflicted with trachoma, an eye infection. The Board also decided to hold Almas Zartarian, Mariam’s mother. Since 1889, Mariam’s father Charles Zartarian had resided in the United States. Mariam was born in or near Harput (Kharpert) in the Ottoman Empire just eight days before his departure to the U.S.. Almas and Mariam Zartarian had managed to survive the Hamidian massacre, which targeted Armenians in Eastern Anatolia from 1894 to 1897. Meanwhile, Charles became a U.S. citizen in 1896 and sent for his family in 1904. On April 19, 1905, Charles Zartarian appeared in the Boston Immigration Station with his naturalization certificate.

The Board of Special Inquiry unanimously admitted Almas on the grounds of her derivative citizenship as the wife of a U.S. citizen, Charles — but excluded their daughter, Mariam, once more by the vote of 2 to 1. They split over her citizenship status. Two inspectors thought that she was an “alien,” despite her father’s citizenship. However, the third inspector, Jas A. Brosnahan, opined that Mariam Zartarian was entitled to enter the United States, despite her disease, because she was a U.S. citizen in his judgment. Since the days of the early republic, the federal government has allowed U.S. citizen fathers to pass on their citizenship to their foreign-born children upon their arrival in the United States. Under Section 2172 of the Revised Statutes, foreign-born children of naturalized citizens became naturalized automatically, if they were under 21 and dwelled in the United States.

Mariam Zartarian’s case posed a legal question: Was the U.S. government authorized to restrict the entry of foreign-born children of naturalized citizens according to the immigration laws? To stop her deportation, Charles Zartarian filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court of the United States. He claimed that Mariam was unlawfully detained by the immigration authorities, despite her derivative citizenship. On April 28, 1905, Judge Lowell denied the petition based on the understanding that Mariam was still an alien.

Mariam Zartarian remained confined in the Boston Immigration Station while Charles Zartarian brought the case to the Supreme Court of the United States. Meanwhile, the Circuit Court allowed physicians to visit her for treatment inside the wall. By August 1905, her eyes were reportedly “getting better.”[1]

Mariam Zartarian became known as “a girl without a country.”[2] She could not enter the United States to join her parents because immigration officials deemed her a non-citizen, but she also could not be easily returned to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman government had permitted her to leave the country only on the condition that she would never set foot in the Sultan’s territory. Stuck at the port of Boston, she “made herself of much assistance to the immigration officers as an interpreter and a general helper.” By the Christmas of 1906, Mariam “made herself a favorite at the immigration station.”[3]

In January 1907, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Bureau of Immigration. Judge Day stated that the “minor children of a naturalized alien who were born abroad and remained abroad until after their parent’s naturalization” were “subject as to their entrance to the United States to the provisions of the Alien Immigration Act of March 3, 1903.” At the same time, he commented that this decision was “a harsh application of the law.”[4]

On January 12, 1907, Oscar Straus, Secretary of Commerce and Labor, ordered the reexamination of her eyes, which led to her legal entry to the United States as a desirable alien. She joined her family, granted derivative citizenship immediately after more than twenty months of detention at the border.

Mariam Zartarian was one of many border-crossing children who embodied legal questions specific to them as immigrants as well as children during the formative years of federal immigration control. My research shows that the legal, familial, and societal contexts of child migration were much more diverse than generally assumed.

Many children fell into legal pitfalls and found themselves at the disposal of others, most importantly, but not limited to, the immigration authorities. During the progressive era, neither jurists nor lawmakers showed a consistent interest in the immigration status of foreign-born children, leaving it mostly at the discretion of inspecting officials. And as immigration law became more restrictive, it became more difficult for children to verify their identity, access to parental protection, and potential to be self-supporting citizens.


[1] “Pretty Girl May Miss Deporting,” Boston Herald (August 13, 1905): 9.

[2] “A Girl Without a Country,” Boston Herald (February 4, 1906): Magazine Section 3.

[3] “Immigrants Get Many Presents,” Boston Herald (December 25, 1906): 12.

[4] Zartarian v. Billings, 204 U.S. 170.

Yukako Otori is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History Department of Harvard University. She is also a lecturer in American Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Her dissertation, Disposal Subjects: Law and Child Migration to the United States, 1892-1924, offers a socio-legal history of child migration. In 2018, she received a George E. Pozzetta Dissertation Research Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.

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