Chinese Exclusion, the First Bureau of Immigration, and the 1905 Special Chinese Census: Registered, Counted, Arrested, Deported--1892-1906.

Author:Chung, Sue Fawn

The first Bureau of Immigration (Bl) under the leadership of Terence V. Powderly and Frank P. Sargent successfully expanded its control over America's immigrants by utilizing the anti-Chinese sentiment present at the time. One of the cornerstones of the BI's actions was the 1905 Special Chinese Census, which sought to register and count the Chinese present in the United States between the 1892 Geary Act (the ten-year extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, 29 Stat. 214, with the added condition of registration and deportation rationale (1)) and the final tally of the 1905 Census reported to Congress in 1906. Throughout the process BI officials arrested and deported those without proper documentation (either Certificates of Residence or Certificates of Identity). (2) BI records provided insight into their actions. (3) The results of the programs, especially its judicial powers and deportation arrests, had far-reaching consequences for the Chinese in the United States as fear of American government officials increased. This did not go unnoticed in China, where talk of a boycott of American goods had begun as early as the passage of federal exclusionary laws and reached its height in 1905 as U.S.-China trade relations deteriorated to the point where Chinese merchants in the port cities launched the anti-American boycott.


In the late nineteenth century, negative stereotypes of the Chinese were based on European pseudoscientific theories supporting the racial superiority of Anglo-Saxons and the inferiority of the Chinese. The strange dress, customs, non-Christian beliefs, and activities of the Chinese spurred the anti-Chinese movements, which were often violent. The growth of the popular media and the aspirations of politicians who could unify diverse groups against the Chinese led to the popular clamor to take legislative action. (4) In a series of court decisions that influenced popular opinion and the media dating from 1878 onward and that coincided with the rise of labor unions that called for the end of "cheap coolie labor," many Americans believed that the Chinese were unsuited for American citizenship and participation in the American way of life. Chinese women were targeted because they would have numerous children and contribute to the growth of the culturally "alien and unassimilable" population in America; so the 1875 Page Law essentially prevented the immigration of Chinese women and created a "bachelor-like Chinese society" despite the fact that one-third to one-fourth of the men were married but living separately from their wives, who were in China. (5) The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its extensions were attempts to solve the problem of stemming the tide of Chinese immigration on several fronts: ending the immigration of laborers, severely restricting who could enter, deporting Chinese who had not legally entered the country, and preventing women from entering in order to stop the formation of families and thus limit the number of American-born children.

At first Congress put the control of immigration under the Department of the Treasury's Bureau of Customs to implement and enforce the 1882 law, but widespread public dissatisfaction quickly grew because of loopholes in the enforcement of the law, the absence of nationwide regulatory policies, and inadequate funding and personnel. Customs officials resorted to appealing to patriotic Americans to help them enforce the discriminatory legislation. After the 1882 act, the Chinese population surged. According to ship manifests, fifty thousand Chinese entered the country before 1892, and the fear of Asian domination added to the justification for the first racially biased federal exclusion of immigrants and its extensions. (6)

New legislation attempted to correct these problems. In 1884 amendments (23 Stat. 115) were added to close loopholes in the 1882 act--requiring identification information and reentry certificates (often with photographs) for Chinese leaving the United States. However, the number of Chinese arrivals still increased. At the Port of San Francisco alone, 7,744 Chinese entered in 1886; 11,172 in 1887; and 12,842 in 1888. (7) The Scott Act of 1888 (25 Stat. 476), as it was popularly known, added the requirement of a government-issued certificate of identification and prohibited reentry unless an individual possessed this document or had family members or had debts amounting to S 1,000 or more in the United States. The Scott Act also redefined who constituted the exempt class of merchants, students, teachers, and visitors while making all other Chinese classified as laborers ineligible for admission. (8) For a brief period these exclusion laws were effective, but the number of Chinese immigrants began to rise again in 1891 partially through false papers, smuggling, and other evasive methods. (9) The government realized harsher laws and stricter enforcement were needed. Those who were not legally in the United States had to be deported.

The Geary Act of 1892 and its amendments were the answer to the Chinese problem because the new law required that certificates of residence or identity, regardless of place of birth, be carried by laborers and others at all times. Failure to do so was punishable by deportation or a year of hard labor. At first the application required the support of at least two Euro-American witnesses. The act also permitted arrests without warrants and court proceedings; expanded the definition of "laborers" to include a wide variety of occupations; limited the definition of the exempt classes, especially "merchants"; denied bail and habeas corpus proceedings for Chinese who were not allowed to land; denied Chinese the ability to testify in court; and placed the burden of proof on Chinese applicants. Prior to this time, only criminals were photographed, and the inescapable popular implication was that the Chinese were engaged in criminal activities, especially illegal entries using fake documents, gambling, and prostitution, and should be treated like criminals. Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada, in an 1892 statement to Congress, justified the action, reflecting the general American attitude that dated back to the 1870s: "The American people are now convinced that the Chinese cannot be incorporated among our citizens, cannot be amalgamated, cannot be absorbed, but that they will remain a distinct element." (10)

The Chinese were quick to respond to the Geary Act. In 1892 two influential community organizations directed their members differently regarding compliance with requirements of the Geary Act. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA, or Chinese Six Companies), with its headquarters in San Francisco, ordered their ninety thousand or so members not to comply, while the Zhigongtang (ZGT or Chee Kong Tong in Cantonese, aka Chinese Freemasons), the other major but smaller Chinese community organization that was more prominent in rural towns, urged their members to register. (11) Eventually the CCBA, which raised money among its membership and in the community in general, lost their legal challenge to portions of the Geary Act. The 1893 McCreary Amendment extended the registration date, allowing CCBA members to apply for the certificates of residence in 1894-1895. (12) As a result of the CCBA position to oppose the law, the ZGT briefly gained greater community prestige and power because of their compliance.

By 1894 the Chinese, both foreign-born and American-born, realized that they had to obtain the certificates of residence or certificates of identity, complete with a photograph, written physical description (height, weight, special physical features), address, and occupation (fig. 1). The government considered the certificates the most reliable means of identification. (13) For the average worker, the expense was considerable. The certificate was $1.00 and the four photographs alone (later three) cost $0.45 each. (14) Since the average Chinese salary was $1.00 per day, this was a significant expense. If the certificate was lost or accidentally destroyed, which was not uncommon, then a duplicate certificate had to be obtained that involved an attorney, more photographs, depositions by acquaintances (especially Euro-American policemen, postal officials, or prominent businessmen, whom the BI regarded as trustworthy), and documents such as birth certificates, bank statements, and passports. (15) Consequently Chinese community leaders and others made special efforts to meet and get to know important Euro-American community leaders in order to assist their countrymen in the identification procedure.

Tightening the definitions of eligible classifications for admission led to further reduction in admissions. Between 1898 and 1899 the definition of which classes were not exempt included salesmen, clerks, buyers, bookkeepers, accountants, managers, storekeepers, apprentices, agents, cashiers, physicians, proprietors of restaurants, missionaries, preachers, ministers, and others, so the only "guaranteed" exempt categories were merchants, diplomats, students, and visitors. (16) At the same time the U.S. government made it more difficult for Chinese merchants and their families (exempt from exclusion) to gain admission, in 1898 Attorney General John W. Griggs of New Jersey distinguished "trader" from "merchant," and this allowed the BI to reduce the number of Chinese trader-merchants admitted. (17) By targeting the business community, the BI offended the educated community leaders with ties to other merchants in port cities in China who were connected to the rapidly growing transpacific trade network. Those involved in transpacific trade were eventually hurt by the lack of competent support staff in business enterprises in the United States and the inability to expand into the American West merchandising market.

Meanwhile the challenges to the Geary Act reached diplomatic levels...

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