Resources

Resources on Chinese Immigration to the United States, 1882-1944

From 1882 to 1943 the United States Government severely curtailed immigration from China to the United States. This Federal policy resulted from concern over the large numbers of Chinese who had come to the United States in response to the need for inexpensive labor, especially for construction of the transcontinental railroad. Competition with American workers and a growing nativism brought pressure for restrictive action, which began with the Act of May 6, 1882 (22 Stat. 58). Passed by the 47th Congress, this law suspended immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years; permitted those Chinese in the United States as of November 17, 1880, to stay, travel abroad, and return; prohibited the naturalization of Chinese; and created the Section 6 exempt status for teachers, students, merchants, and travelers. These exempt classes would be admitted upon presentation of a certificate from the Chinese government.

The next significant exclusionary legislation was the Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States of May 1892 (27 Stat. 25). Referred to as the Geary Act, it allowed Chinese laborers to travel to China and reenter the United States but its provisions were otherwise more restrictive than preceding immigration laws. This Act required Chinese to register and secure a certificate as proof of their right to be in the United States. Imprisonment or deportation were the penalties for those who failed to have the required papers or witnesses. Other restrictive immigration acts affecting citizens of Chinese ancestry followed. During World War II, when China and the United States were allies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts, to Establish Quotas, and for Other Purposes (57 Stat. 600-1). This Act of December 13, 1943, also lifted restrictions on naturalization. However until the Immigration Act of October 1965 (79 Stat. 911) numerous laws continued to have a restrictive impact on Chinese immigration.

Certain Federal agencies were particularly active in enforcing the exclusion laws. Initially the Customs Service took the lead because of the maritime nature of immigration. In 1900 the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration, which had been established in the Department of the Treasury in 1891, became the chief agency responsible for implementing Federal regulations mandated by the Chinese exclusion laws. This office evolved into the present Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Both the Chinese Bureau within the Customs Service and the Chinese Division of the INS employed "Chinese" inspectors, people designated to enforce the Chinese exclusion laws. Immigration- related decisions made by these Federal officials were sometimes appealed to Federal courts, which also heard criminal cases involving Chinese alleged to be living in the United States illegally. Many of the records created to implement the Chinese exclusion laws are now in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) Regional Archives. The records are a major resource for the study of Chinese immigration and Chinese-American travel, trade, and social history from the late-19th to mid-20th century. Because many documents relate to individual immigrants, they are invaluable for the study of Chinese and Chinese-American family history. These records document the rationale and actions of Federal officials and other persons involved with Chinese exclusion policies and the strategies and activities of Chinese and Chinese Americans who struggled against the prohibitive effects of those policies. Records in NARA's Regional Archives are not arranged according to subject, but are kept in numbered record groups established for the Government agencies that created or received them. Although arrangement by record group (abbreviated RG) makes subject access more difficult at times, it preserves the organizational and contextual integrity of the records, making them more easily understood. Often records in one record group can be linked with those in another. For example, an INS case file in RG 85 may include the case file number of a related district or circuit court case in RG 21 and vice versa. INS case numbers can sometimes be retrieved from information provided on passenger arrival lists in Customs Service (RG 36) files. Records related to the Angel Island Immigration Station can be found in Public Health Service (RG 90) files.

This reference information paper is organized by Federal agency/record group as follows:

  •           ~ a brief history of the Federal agency that created or received the records;
                 the Regional Archives that holds the records;

  •           ~ the specific source (usually the local office of a Federal agency) of the records;

  •           ~ description(s)of the records including, whenever possible, date span, quantity,
                 system of arrangement, availability and explanation of finding aids, reference to
                 related microfilm publications, and other information useful to researchers.

 

The majority of the records cited in this publication are open to the public for research. In some instances NARA is not able to provide public access due to the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts specific categories of information from public disclosure. Individual immigration case files relating to events more than 75 years old are generally open for research. Documents in case files relating to events less than 75 years old may be subject to privacy restrictions defined in the Freedom of Information Act. To gain access to files restricted because of privacy concerns, researchers, including family members, can act as authorized representatives of the subject of the file by providing NARA with evidence of the subject's consent. If the subject of a file is deceased, protection of privacy is not applicable but researchers are asked to provide documentation of the subject's death. NARA also requires that a researcher provide identification, such as a valid driver's license, before it provides access to original records.

Immigration and Naturalization Service 
Record Group 85

 

Administrative History

 The Office of Superintendent of Immigration was established in the Department of the Treasury by an act of March 3, 1891, and was designated a bureau in 1895 with responsibility for administering the alien contract-labor laws. In 1903 it became part of the Department of Commerce and Labor. Functions relating to naturalization were added in 1906 and it was renamed the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. In 1913 it was transferred to the Department of Labor as two separate Bureaus of Immigration and of Naturalization, which were reunited by Executive Order on June 10, 1933, to form the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The INS, which became part of the Department of Justice in 1940, administers laws relating to admission, exclusion, deportation, and naturalization of foreign nationals; patrols United States borders; and supervises naturalization in designated Federal courts.

Many of NARA's Regional Archives hold INS records created primarily during enforcement of the Chinese exclusion laws, 1882-1943. Although the acts were repealed in 1943, some case files may contain correspondence and other documents dated as late as the 1960's. Most case files relate to Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans departing and reentering the United States, but there are also files for other immigrants who came under the jurisdiction of the Chinese exclusion laws (such as Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos). Laws and provisions passed after 1943, such as the "Confession Program," which allowed Chinese who had committed fraud to enter the country before September 1957 to confess to the immigration authorities and adjust or correct their status, generated records that may also be contained in these files.

Knowledge of the various exclusion laws fosters an understanding of the types of records generated. Different laws required different forms and documents. Various acts suspended immigration of Chinese laborers, permitted reentry of certain Chinese laborers who left the United States temporarily, created the Section 6 exempt status, and permitted entry of wives and children of "legally domiciled aliens."

The San Francisco earthquake and fire had a major impact on the course of the Chinese exclusion bureaucracy. The events of April 18, 1906, destroyed the Hall of Records, including vital records of births, marriages, and deaths. Because these records were destroyed, a legal Chinese resident who requested permission from the INS to return to China to bring back his family might claim to have more children than he actually did. He would receive the paperwork allowing their immigration, use what he needed for his own family, and use or sell the extra "slots" to bring in nonimmediate family members, other village residents, or strangers. These individuals became known as "paper sons."

As INS officials became aware of the existence of "paper sons," they developed the interrogation process to block their entry into the United States, making it more difficult for legal immigrants to enter the country. The transcripts of these interrogations, found in many Chinese immigration files, add to the documentation for each immigrant and give a broad view of their family and the community left behind in China.

Merchants were exempt from exclusion. A man who could prove his merchant status could obtain a merchant's certificate, allowing him to travel between China and the United States and the Territory of Hawaii. This status also allowed him to bring in his wife and family if he could provide proof of relationship. The records generated by the merchant certificate application process include the merchant's testimony and passport, testimony of Caucasian business colleagues or customers, partnership lists, and photographs.

A 1900 law required all Chinese in Hawaii to register and obtain a certificate of residence. To obtain this certificate the applicant had to submit to an investigation at the INS office. Proof of naturalization by the kingdom of Hawaii or a certificate of Hawaiian birth before the islands came under United States territorial status in 1900, or a special birth certificate for Chinese born in Hawaii after 1900, were used to acquire this certificate of residency and citizenship.

A typical Chinese immigration case file contains information such as the subject's name, place and date of birth, physical appearance, occupation, names and relationships of other family members, and family history. Specific INS proceedings are also documented. Because of the nature of INS investigations, case files provide links to file numbers for related cases, including those for other family members.

The files may contain certificates of identity and residency; correspondence; coaching materials used by "paper sons;" INS findings, recommendations, and decisions; maps of immigrant family residences and villages in China; original marriage certificates; individual and family photographs; transcripts of INS interrogations and special boards of inquiry; and witnesses' statements and affidavits. Prior to 1944 each INS district office developed its own filing systems. Keys exist for only a few of the offices.

To locate a case file a researcher must know the name the immigrant or traveler used on the papers. This may differ from the actual or commonly used name. Having the name in Chinese helps to verify the name on the file. INS officials often did not understand the arrangement of Chinese names and sometimes reversed family and personal names. Forms of address, marital status, or respect such asAh or Shee were taken to be actual names and listed on the index as such. In some cases officials misheard, misunderstood, or misspelled the actual name. In other cases Chinese names were converted to Hawaiian names for phonetic reasons, such as Chung to Akuna. Case files are unlikely to exist for Chinese who arrived in the United States before 1882 and never left and for Chinese Americans born in the United States who never left.

Immigration and Naturalization Service Records at NARA's Pacific Region (San Bruno)
in San Bruno, California

 

SanFrancisco District Office

          ~ Arrival investigation case files, 1884-1944 (1,060 cubic feet.) Most early files document the investigation of people arriving from China to determine their eligibility for admission under the Chinese exclusion laws. By the early 20th century the scope of individuals investigated expanded to include people arriving from India, Japan (especially picture brides), Korea, and other Asian countries, and Russia.

          ~ Chinese partnership case files, 1894-1944 (40 cubic feet.) Maps of some Chinatowns in California, descriptions of business activities, photographs, and lists of business partners. Arranged by file numbers representing cities (mostly California) or, in the case of San Francisco, street names. Indexed on microfilm.

          ~ Case files of investigations not resulting in warrant proceedings in the San Francisco District and investigations within the San Francisco District at the request of other service offices, 1912-1950 (16 cubic feet.) Case files of individuals investigated for possible immigration fraud.

          ~ Case files of immigration fraud investigations, 1914-1924 (2 cubic feet.) Materials from the Vauer and Densmore Investigations. Included are village maps, extensive family genealogies, photographic logs of recent deportees, passenger lists, interrogations of immigrants and suspect INS employees, and coaching papers.

          ~ Passport and travel control files, 1918-1924 (1 cubic foot)

          ~ Return certificate application case files of Chinese departing, 1912-1944 (275 cubic feet)

          ~ Return certificate application case files of natives departing, 1903-1912 (7 cubic feet)

          ~ Return certificate application case files of lawfully domiciled laborers departing, 1903-1912 (2 cubic feet)

          ~ Return certificate application case files of lawfully domiciled merchants, teachers, and students departing, 1903-1912 (3 cubic feet)

          ~ Return certificate application case files of Chinese departing, 1894-1912 (18 cubic feet)

          ~ Case files of investigations resulting in warrant proceedings, 1912-1950 (6 cubic feet.) Case files of individuals arrested and held for deportation.

          ~ Generalimmigration case files, 1944-1955 (254 cubic feet) All San Francisco District Office case files listed above are arranged by case file number. A database to the case files is being compiled.

          ~ Administrative records (3 cubic feet.) General correspondence, 1915-1941; historical files relating to Angel Island, 1894-1941; boat files, 1911-1941, containing information about vessels used to ferry staff members and immigrants from Angel Island to San Francisco; telephone cable files, 1910-1940; and construction and maintenance files, 1912-1913.

          ~ Certificate of identity books, 1909-1936 (1/2 cubic foot)

 

For further details about collections at the National Archives:

https://www.archives.gov/research/chinese-americans/guide.html

For further details about collections at the University of California:

To Find UC Berkeley Library Holdings on Chinese Immigration in California
To Find Bancroft Library Holdings of Chinese in California archival collections
To Find State-Wide Archival Holdings on Chinese in California