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Most scholarship on us refugee and asylum policy focuses on the period after the Second World War, though some works briefly mention that the 1917 immigration law exempted from the literacy test those fleeing from religious persecution. One scholar has claimed this early provision was ‘stillborn’, given the passage of increasingly restrictionist quota laws in 1921 and 1924 that guaranteed no slots for refugees (Bon Tempo 2008: 15). Another scholar categorises the literacy test exemption as part of a liberal tradition of asylum, which developed in the usa as a defence against exclusion and deportation (Price 2009: 52-58). But there has been no investigation into what actually happened to a population that was supposed to benefit from the literacy test exemption – Armenian immigrants – to assess how the binary of realities and ideals structured the provision of refuge.
Material and methods
This chapter attempts to provide this ‘on the ground’ story. Its main source comprises all discoverable Immigration Bureau cases involving Armenian immigrants who raised the issue of persecution between 1917 and 1924. The annual reports of the Commissioner General of Immigration do not report the number or persecution claims made, but only the number of literacy test exemptions officially granted for this reason. Thus, the statistics hide the extensive discussions about persecution carried on during admission hearings and between officials, though these are evident in the case files. Most of these case files involve Armenian women who, after the genocide, for the first time outnumbered Armenian male immigrants. Armenian women, too, were much more likely to have difficulty passing the literacy test. More than 55% of the approximately 25,000 Armenian immigrants in the 1920s were women. In order to follow Armenian women after their arrival and to analyse the perspectives of the social workers who handled their cases, this chapter also draws on some 150 case files from the international institutes of the Young Women's Christian Association (ywca) from the 1920s, the vast majority of which are from the Boston International Institute.
Examining case files helps to fill in gaps in the scholarship on the Armenian genocide and responses to it by focusing on gender and migration.
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