LocationUnited States (regarding Chinese in America)
What are Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files?:
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed by the U.S. Congress to limit the number of Chinese entering the United States, and to prevent the Chinese already in the United States from becoming naturalized citizens. This initial act excluded Chinese laborers and miners. It also required that Chinese already living in the United States to obtain a certificate for re-entry to the country if they left for any reason.
In 1892, the Chinese Exclusion Act was extended and strengthened, requiring all native-born Chinese residents of the U.S. to register and obtain a certificate of residence. In 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese exclusion act, allowing foreign-born Chinese to leave the country without being required to register. Foreign-born Chinese were also granted the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
What You Can Learn From Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files:
Later Chinese Exclusion files include a formal interrogation with questions and answers about the individual's place of birth and previous residence in China, the name and relationships of other family members, and the reason for leaving and returning to the United States. Sometimes information on family members may include cross-references to other case files. Supporting documentation may sometimes be found, including descriptions of the family village, marriage certificates, etc.
For a look at what you might find in a typical Chinese Exclusion File, see Paper Son where Byron Yee, a Los Angeles based comedian and actor, has posted over twenty pages from his father's file, including his full interrogation.
Paper sons were especially common following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire which destroyed public records. Many Chinese living in America brought in paper sons by claiming they were a Chinese-American citizen born in San Francisco, and that the papers documenting their American citizenship had been lost in the 1906 disaster.
Where Can I Access Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files?The majority of the Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files are part of Record Group 85, and are held by the National Archives Regional facilities located near the major U.S. ports of entry, namely the Pacific Southwest (Laguana Niguel, California), Pacific (San Bruno, California), Pacific Alaska (Seattle), Northeast (New York City), New England (Waltham, Massachusetts) and Great Lakes (Chicago) facilities. Although the acts were repealed in 1943, some case files may contain correspondence and other documents dated as late as the 1960's.
Selected indexes and case file documents can also be found online:
- Index to Case Files for Early Immigrants to San Francisco and Hawaii - free
- New York Chinese Exclusion Index to Case Files, 1882-1960 - subscription required
- Digital Images of Chinese Exclusion Files in ARC - free
To locate a Chinese Exclusion Act case file you 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. Because INS officials often did not understand the arrangement of Chinese names be sure to search for both the surname and given name in the surname index. Forms of address, marital status, or respect such as Ah or Shee were often taken to be actual names - you'll find many women, for example, with the first name of Shee. 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.
Once you locate a case file in an index, you can contact the appropriate National Archives regional office directly to order copies, or visit in person.