May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our related holdings.
Today’s guest blogger is Zack Wilske, Senior Historian at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Chinese Exclusion Act case files held at National Archives facilities across the country provide valuable resources for Chinese American genealogists searching for records of their ancestors’ immigrant experiences, as well as for scholars researching the history of American immigration policy.
Unfortunately, locating a specific individual’s case file can sometimes be difficult because the files are scattered in several locations, and no unified, comprehensive, publicly available index exists for them.
Researchers who have difficulty locating Chinese Exclusion Act case files may consider using the US Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) index search service, which includes citations for nearly all of the Chinese Exclusion Act case files now stored in regional archives nationwide.
Beginning in 1882, U.S. law excluded the vast majority of Chinese immigrants. Initially, a “Chinese Bureau” in the U.S. Customs Service enforced Chinese Exclusion laws. In 1900 the Chinese Bureau—and the vast majority of its records—transferred to the Bureau of Immigration. The Bureau of Immigration eventually evolved into the INS and oversaw exclusion policy until it was overturned in 1943.
Under Chinese exclusion laws, Chinese migrants who attempted to legally immigrate were subject to rigorous documentary requirements as well as extensive investigations of their eligibility. Chinese who were discovered entering the United States without proper documentation were subject to interrogations and removal proceedings.
All of these activities generated copious records. Because the laws required Chinese immigrants to prove their identities and establish familial relationships, the records often provide detailed personal and family histories, making them invaluable to family history researchers.
During the exclusion era, the INS created and stored Chinese Exclusion Act case files at ports-of-entry and district offices around the country so they would be available for use in the field. While the files were active they were never centralized, and each INS district used its own numbering and index systems. This was still the case in the late 1950s, several years after Chinese exclusion was repealed, when the INS decided to retire the records and store them in Federal Records Centers located across the nation.
Years later, during the 1980s, INS transferred the surviving Chinese Exclusion Act case files from the records centers to the National Archives. At that time, each INS office transferred any surviving indexes to the National Archives regional facility with jurisdiction over its location. Throughout their lifecycle, the records remained decentralized and without a unified index.
Today, there is still no unified index at the National Archives, though there are several individual indexes that at least partially cover the holdings of many regional Archives facilities. Some of the indexes were transferred to the Archives from INS, while others were created at regional Archives facilities, often with the help of volunteers. These indexes have greatly aided research within the Chinese Exclusion Act case files, but it is still difficult to search for files across locations or to know if you’ve searched all of the available files.
One solution to these problems is the index search service available from the USCIS Genealogy Program. USCIS, which inherited INS’s records when that agency ceased to exist in 2003, maintains the INS Master Index system. The Master Index, a system of tools that allows USCIS to locate historical immigration and naturalization files, is not an index of Chinese Exclusion files, but it does include entries for Chinese Exclusion Act files transferred to the National Archives.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the retirement of the Chinese Exclusion files, each INS District Office indexed every file as part of an INS national file inventory. The information—including at least the file number, the subject’s name, and the file location —was then interfiled with the roughly 30 million other cards (documenting dozens of types of INS files) that then composed the Master Index. So, while no index of all the Chinese Exclusion files was created, the files were incorporated into INS’s larger, comprehensive Master Index.
In the years since, INS microfilmed and then digitized most of the Master Index. Today, the USCIS Genealogy Program uses the index to search for historical immigration and naturalization records. Most of the records are still maintained by USCIS, but some—including Chinese Exclusion Act case files—are now in National Archives custody.
The Master Index is particularly useful for Chinese Exclusion Act case files for several reasons.
First, it is the most complete index to the files, which means that it will include files for which there no finding aids exist at the National Archives.
Second, it allows for a nationwide search, which means researchers can locate files stored in seemingly unlikely locations. For example, a Chinese immigrant who lived his whole American life in San Francisco, but who entered through the port of Seattle, may have a record located in the National Archives at Seattle and nothing in the National Archives at San Francisco.
Third, the search will also locate all of the file citations for a Chinese immigrant who has multiple files that are now located in several regional Archives facilities.
Finally, the index search will return citations for any other non-Chinese Exclusion files INS may have created for the same immigrant, which is especially important for immigrants whose Chinese Exclusion case file may have been consolidated into an INS A-file.
Because federal law requires USCIS to limit access to its records for privacy and law enforcement purposes, the Master Index—which includes entries dated as late as 1975—is not open to public researchers.
Index search requests can be made through the USCIS Genealogy Program. USCIS is a fee-based agency, which means it generates the majority of its budget through application fees. The fee for a Genealogy index search request is $65.00, per subject (each immigrant searched).
To make a request, researchers need to provide at least the subject’s name (with alternate spellings if applicable), approximate date of birth, and country of birth. More information is available from the USCIS Genealogy website.
Although the search at the National Archives for a Chinese Exclusion Act case file may be difficult and challenging, the rewards can be great as these files may contain a treasure trove of information for the family and social historian. Watch National Archives at Seattle Director Susan Karren discuss Chinese Exclusion Act records in recognition of the Chinese Exclusion Act’s 135th anniversary.