Justice  /  Vignette

Paper Sons in the Era of Immigration Restriction

Chinese immigration and the Immigration Act of 1924.

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.

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.”