Wednesday, April 12, 2017

National Library Week: "Tracking Immigrants, Then and Now"

Photograph album of Chinese men and women in Sierra County, Vault 184, California Historical Society

There's a photo from the California Historical Society's North Baker Research Library that has fascinated me for years. It's the page of an immigration officer's journal from 1894. Stationed in Downieville, California, D.D. Beatty took photographs of nearly every Chinese resident in the city and noted their name, age, "identifying marks," and other details as part of his work as an inspector for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration. The Geary Act of 1892 required all Chinese immigrants to register with the U.S. government (a long-forgotten precursor to the "Muslim registry," or National Security Entry-Exit Registration System put into place after 9/11), and Beatty apparently used this journal to keep track of the Chinese immigrants in his jurisdiction. The faces of three women and one man stare out from their passport-size mugshots. Beatty's careful cursive appears alongside. An older woman is identified as Ung Gook, or "China Susie." At the time of the entry, she was 55 years old and noted as as "housekeeper." Beatty found "no marks" on her face. An additional note was added in 1900: "Gone to China for good."

I've been fascinated by this digitized source, because it documents the intense government surveillance of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans during the exclusion era in a way that no other source does. As someone who has spent her career researching and writing about immigration history and whose family was divided by the Chinese exclusion laws, D.D. Beatty's journal has both research and personal significance. I've been using the digital version of this photograph for years in my public lectures and in my teaching. But I have never seen the journal in person. Until recently. Last month, I was able to visit the North Baker Research Library and held the journal for the first time. It was a powerful moment to turn through page after page of Beatty's photographs and notations and feel the pull of history. And at a time when new government policies are deporting and banning new immigrants, remembering the consequences of this dark chapter in our history is more important than ever.

Erika Lee
Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History and Director, Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota; author of The Making of Asian America: A History, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (with Judy Yung), and At America's Gates: Chinese Exclusion During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.
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