Primary Sources Show How the Chinese Exclusion Act was Applied

Today’s post comes from Evangel Penumaka, former intern in our Education and Public Programs division.

This past summer the National Archives in Washington D.C. digitized many documents related to Chinese immigration with the help of educators attending the Primarily Teaching workshop. Prior to the workshop we completed research to identify boxes and files that would provide the teachers with a variety of documents on Chinese immigration. The documents include affidavits, photos, letters to immigration officials, and transcripts of interrogations.

As we helped teachers select and scan files during the week, there were several documents in particular that fascinated me. These three documents gave me a better understanding of this period of history. Many of the documents now available on DocsTeach similarly show how the laws were applied. They are all great resources for educators and students.

Mah Chung's Return Certificate
Chinese Government Certificate of Return for Mah Chung, 9/27/1892. From the Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. National Archives Identifier: 23835799

The first document that really stood out to me was the Chinese Government Certificate of Return for Mah Chung. One thing that caught my eye was that it had both English and Chinese writing. I was also intrigued when a photo of the individual accompanied the document. The certificate was issued at the Consulate General in San Francisco, California. It permitted Mah Chung to remain within the U.S. under Section Six of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This section allowed an exempt class of non-laborers, such as merchants, teachers and students to enter the country as long as they were able to present their certificate.

This document is an excellent example for students to see the types of identification and paperwork that Chinese immigrants were required to have. It can also be used to teach students how immigration inspectors would apply the Chinese Exclusion Act. One major issue during this time period was that there were many cases of people being detained because they were suspected of holding fraudulent certificates.

Another set of documents that caught my attention were the files on Colonel John Irish and his correspondence with Oscar Straus, the Secretary of Commerce and Labor. One of his letters addressed the way Chinese immigrants were sometimes treated unfairly by inspectors upon entry. Colonel Irish believed that the inspectors acted without any regard to the liberties of the Chinese.

Letter from John Irish on DocsTeach
Letter to the Honorable Oscar S. Straus from Colonel John Irish (on DocsTeach), 1/30/1907. From the Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. National Archives Identifier: 23835475

He readdressed the issue in another letter, maintaining that his argument was aimed at the immigration system itself, rather than individual inspectors. The Colonel described the system as the “breeding place of bribery and blackmail” and one of gross inequality. For example, European immigrants never had to experience the types of interrogation, detention and deportation that Chinese immigrants were subject to.

Colonel Irish also described individual cases, such as a Chinese woman who wished to join her husband but was kept in a unkept detention shed while inspectors looked at her case. The woman was eventually deported because her husband was determined to be a laborer for owning stock in a restaurant.

It was fascinating to read Colonel Irish’s letters, as they were so different from the paperwork in many case files. Students can benefit from reading these letters as they offer a unique perspective on how the Chinese Exclusion laws affected people. The fact that Colonel Irish took action to bring these problems to attention can illustrate to students that people did recognize the impact the restrictions had on Chinese immigrants.

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