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Letter written in Chinese
Wong Gin Foo to Wong Kim (in Chinese), March 31, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Paper Sons in the Era of Immigration Restriction: Chinese Immigration and the Immigration Act of 1924

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[T]he Immigration got mad and say you are not born in U. S.,” Wong Gin Foo wrote in March 1930 to his alleged father, Wong Kim of Helena, Montana. “You better send a telegram to Washington and fix it for me,” Gin Foo pleaded after being detained by immigration authorities in New Orleans. “One or two weeks they will send me back to Cuba. … It is cold here not much to eat.”

Gin Foo was one of thousands of Chinese immigrant laborers seeking entrance into the United States, even though the Immigration Act of 1924 had banned nearly all Asian immigration to the United States. Gin Foo’s story and legal appeal, which can be found in the papers of Senator Thomas J. Walsh in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, encapsulates the problematic nature of the law, particularly for non-white immigrants, especially Asians. The Walsh Papers document countless appeals for assistance from immigrants from Europe and to a lesser extent Asia, while also providing a window into the complexities and biases of the 1924 law.

On May 26, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924, which established a national origins quota system for accepting immigrants into the United States. It represented the culmination of more than four decades of nativist immigration law, with quotas based on a proportion of previous immigration numbers. The law simultaneously established a “hierarchy of desirability” that privileged western and northern Europeans from their southeastern and eastern continental peers, while also constructing “a white American race, in which persons of European descent shared a common whiteness that made them distinct from those deemed to be not white,” according to historian Mae Ngai.

Still, while immigrants from Italy and further east found themselves subject to the increasingly stringent quotas introduced by the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, Asians were completely denied the right of naturalized citizenship and allotted virtually no quota slots, thereby making them “unalterably foreign and unassimilable to the nation.”

One method by which Asians circumvented immigration law was through the creation of “paper sons,” through which immigrants claimed membership in groups exempt from the quotas, such as merchants or family members of native-born citizens. This ingenuity subverted the institutionalized racism of the nation’s immigration law and became common practice in the first decades of the twentieth century. Between 1882 and 1943, approximately 300,000 Chinese gained admission to the United States. Historians estimate that over ninety percent of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. during this period did so using false papers.

In 1929, prominent Helena attorney Edward C. Day wrote Walsh regarding the plight of Wong Kim. Kim claimed to have a son, Wong Gin Foo, who had been born in Montana, but was then living in Cuba. Kim had worked at the Montana Club, a private male-only Helena social club established in 1885 and patronized by both Day and Walsh. Kim appealed to Day to contact Walsh about Gin Foo’s plight.

Walsh facilitated the bureaucratic process and by mid-March 1930, the State Department issued Gin Foo a passport for travel to the United States. He eventually gained passage to New Orleans from Cuba, but soon found himself detained by immigration authorities in the port city. Authorities questioned Gin Foo’s citizenship claims and argued that the photograph Gin Foo presented was that of another man, Dan Hung. Day wrote Walsh asking him again to intervene should an appeal be made, “thus enabling you to be in a position to aid us perhaps in thwarting the Immigration officers in giving this applicant a fair hearing.” Day also provided Walsh with a letter written in Chinese by Gin Foo to Kim, as well as the English translation of the correspondence quoted in the opening paragraph of this blog post.

Illustrated magazine cover with document written in English and Chinese
Race and ethnicity emerged in immigration policy with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which President Chester A. Arthur initially vetoed, but which Congress eventually overrode. Puck magazine frequently expressed nativist ideas, such as this 1882 cartoon depicting the bill from a Chinese laundry described as “The only Chinese bill that the president cannot veto,” Puck, April 12, 1882, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

 

Due to the prevalence of the paper son system, Chinese immigration attracted the attention of immigration officials who subjected immigrants to intense interrogations that could span two or three days. Applicants were often asked between 200 and 1,000 questions. Mistakes on even minor details could lead to detention and deportation. In an annotation to his typed translation of Gin Foo’s letter, Day expressed skepticism about the process, arguing that officials were purposely transposing Hung’s identity with Gin Foo’s. Day believed officials were attempting to “frighten this boy into admitting that he is not native born.”

Day also provided accounts of the interrogation that indicated his own doubts about the process. According to Day, the authorities took Kim’s testimony only to establish “the fact that no white person of the proper age was presented before the Examiner.” They, Day added, repeatedly lamented the absence of “’old white persons’ who knew the facts.” Kim introduced his neighbor, an older Chinese woman, who attested to Gin Foo’s identity and repudiated the photographs produced by officials. Two other Helena men, Dr. Cooney and John G. Haggerty, also affirmed the picture was of Gin Foo. Despite such positive identifications, Day believed the immigration inspector “will write a dissertation upon the strangeness of the coincidence that a large number of white persons were not called.”

Typewritten report
L. O. Wining, In Re: Wong Gin Foo #55705/101, May 13, 1930, pages 1-2, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The final report, submitted on May 13, 1930, recounted Gin Foo’s narrative.  According to Gin Foo and Kim, Gin Foo was born in Helena on October 30, 1905, and at two months was taken to San Francisco by his father and his mother, Wu Shee. He resided there until age six, when his father returned him to Helena. From six to fifteen, Gin Foo wintered in San Francisco and summered in Helena. In 1920, Kim travelled to New York with acquaintances and was smuggled into Cuba, where he lived in Havana until receiving a U.S. passport in March 1930.

One strike against Gin Foo’s application related to documentation. The lack of records about his birth struck officials as implausible. Those who testified on his behalf admitted their knowledge of his birth had come through second-hand information.

According to New Orleans immigration officials, several other aspects of Gin Foo’s and Kim’s story failed to align. When asked about their home in Helena, the two men gave slightly different accounts. As to its size, Kim said the home had four rooms and identified a different address than Gin Foo. Gin Foo remembered it being larger, six rooms, was unable to describe the home’s location in the city and seemed “to know virtually nothing about either Helena or San Francisco.” Gin Foo’s recollection of the climate of the two cities sowed doubt, as did his family’s financial situation, seen as too destitute to provide for the sort of travel the two men claimed. Nor could Kim and Gin Foo agree on his number of siblings, officials reported. “His alleged father testifies that [Gin Foo] had two elder brothers,” and one brother followed Gin Foo to Cuba and later died there. Gin Foo told the examiners he had one older brother living in China.

Due to such discrepancies and the lack of a birth certificate, officials denied Gin Foo’s application, an outcome both he and Day expected following the examination. According to correspondence between Day and Walsh later in May 1930, Gin Foo appealed the decision, but did not prevail. Day conveyed the outcome to Kim. Day noted to Walsh that although he could not “penetrate his stolidity he [seemed] to be satisfied that the applicant shall return to Havana.” Day remained unconvinced about “the identity of this applicant at New Orleans.” While he admitted that the variance in Gin Foo’s description of San Francisco and Helena was “very strange,” and understood the decision, he also wondered why if Kim had expended both cost and effort to bring someone who was not his son into the country, he failed to ensure that both men provided more consistent testimony. “But such conjectures are idle and we may treat the case as closed,” Day concluded.

A sadness abounds throughout this history. Was Gin Foo who he claimed to be? If Day’s reservations regarding the quality of the translators and the stenographer were correct, it is very possible the examiner’s decision was based on faulty evidence. But the evidence that was produced certainly was not convincing. If Gin Foo was Kim’s son, Kim had lost his wife, a son in Cuba, and now, in his final years, would be unable to spend them with his son Gin Foo.

Even if Gin Foo was a paper son, the case reveals the misguided nature of an immigration policy dictated by race and ethnicity. Gin Foo’s desire to begin anew in America, even amidst the Great Depression, testifies to his ambition and determination, traits traditionally valued by Americans.

 

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“[T]he Immigration got mad”… Wong Gin Foo to Wong Kim (translated) with typed annotations by Edward C. Day, March 31, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“The law simultaneously established a ‘hierarchy of desirability’”… Mae M. Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924,” Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (June 1999): 69-70.

“unalterably foreign and unassimilable to the nation.”… Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law,” 70.

“One method by which Asians circumvented immigration law”… Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 95.

“In 1929, prominent Helena attorney Edward C. Day wrote Walsh”… Edward C. Day to Thomas J. Walsh, September 13, 1929, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“Day wrote Walsh asking him again to intervene”… Edward C. Day to Thomas J. Walsh, April 5, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“Applicants were often asked”… Lee, The Making of Asian America, 98-99.

“Day expressed skepticism about the process”… Wong Gin Foo to Wong Kim (translated) with typed annotations by Edward C. Day, March 31, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“According to Day”… Edward C. Day to Charles P. Buck, Jr., April 14, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; L. O. Wining, In Re: Wong Gin Foo #55705/101, May 13, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“The final report, submitted on May 13, 1930″… L. O. Wining, In Re: Wong Gin Foo #55705/101, May 13, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“One strike against Gin Foo’s application”… L. O. Wining, In Re: Wong Gin Foo #55705/101, May 13, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“According to New Orleans immigration officials”… L. O. Wining, In Re: Wong Gin Foo #55705/101, May 13, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“According to correspondence between Day and Walsh”… Edward C. Day to Thomas J. Walsh, May 20, 1930, Box I:188, Thomas James Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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