Paper Families

Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion

Paper Families

Politics, History, and Culture

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Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: 6 illustrations, 1 table Published: April 2007

Author: Estelle T. Lau

Asian American Studies, Law > Legal History, Sociology

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made the Chinese the first immigrant group officially excluded from the United States. In Paper Families, Estelle T. Lau demonstrates how exclusion affected Chinese American communities and initiated the development of restrictive U.S. immigration policies and practices. Through the enforcement of the Exclusion Act and subsequent legislation, the U.S. immigration service developed new forms of record keeping and identification practices. Meanwhile, Chinese Americans took advantage of the system’s loophole: children of U.S. citizens were granted automatic eligibility for immigration. The result was an elaborate system of “paper families,” in which U.S. citizens of Chinese descent claimed fictive, or “paper,” children who could then use their kinship status as a basis for entry into the United States. This subterfuge necessitated the creation of “crib sheets” outlining genealogies and providing village maps and other information that could be used during immigration processing.

Drawing on these documents as well as immigration case files, legislative materials, and transcripts of interviews and court proceedings, Lau reveals immigration as an interactive process. Chinese immigrants and their U.S. families were subject to regulation and surveillance, but they also manipulated and thwarted those regulations, forcing the U.S. government to adapt its practices and policies. Lau points out that the Exclusion Acts and the pseudo-familial structures that emerged in response have had lasting effects on Chinese American identity. She concludes with a look at exclusion’s legacy, including the Confession Program of the 1960s that coerced people into divulging the names of paper family members and efforts made by Chinese American communities to recover their lost family histories.


Paper Families is a solid addition to the growing literature on Chinese exclusion.” — Erika Lee, Pacific Historical Review

“[T]his slim volume offers a cogent summary of the impact that Chinese immigration had on the development of the American immigration apparatus and of the ways in which Chinese immigrants coped with these and other restrictions on their American lives.” — K. Scott Wong, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“A careful reading of Lau’s book can shed light on the futility of tying to exclude a specific group of people from emigrating to the U. S. . . . Given the acrimonious positions on both sides of the current immigration ‘debate,’ Paper Families is a book that adds to the literature on both Chinese immigration to the U. S. and U. S. immigration policy in general.” — Judith Liu, Contemporary Sociology

“As the first book-length study that focuses on fictive family ties among the Chinese, Paper Families attempts to shed more light on our understanding of Chinese exclusion and the Chinese American community.” — Xiaojian Zhao, Journal of American History

“Based on painstaking sorting and analysis of archival immigration files and supplementary data, including internal memoranda, congressional records, and historical sources, Lau provides a credible account of the struggle for existence and identity that adds to a much deeper understanding of Chinese American history. . . . Paper Families constitutes an insightful new study of Chinese exclusion and makes an original contribution to research on Chinese immigration and Chinese American history.” — Min Zhou, American Journal of Sociology

“Because Lau’s work contains detailed analyses of several specific immigration cases, as well as the responses of immigration officials to entire family histories and narrative, her book is an important contribution to the scholarly literature in this field. . . . Lau’s book succeeds in showing again that Chinese Exclusion shaped both the Chinese American community as well as the federal government.” — John S.W. Park, Law and Politics Book Review

“Estelle Lau’s book adds to the burgeoning literature on the exclusion laws by analysing them in the context of sociological theories about bureaucratic development. . . . Lau’s approach brings a new analytical perspective that can create a bridge between Asian American studies, the history of the administrative states, and the sociology of bureaucracy.” — Adam McKeown, China Perspectives

“It's the author's balance and lack of special pleading that makes Paper Families a sane and therefore agreeable book.” — Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

“Lau has written a valuable contribution to the literature on Chinese immigration. . . . Lau has provided valuable case studies that enhance our understanding of how Chinese exclusion was enforced and how Chinese immigrants responded to that enforcement.” — Hans Vought, H-Net Reviews

“Lau’s analysis is imaginative, and it is likely to draw a lot of attention in the scholarly community.” — Richard J. Cox, Reading Archives blog

“Lau’s lucid description of the reciprocal relations between the power of the state and the power of civil society is an important contribution to the scholarly literature in the sociolegal field. . . . This is a book worth reading, and reading carefully. It is thoughtful, well written, and it would be a great resource for anyone interested in the Chinese American experience or the development of the immigration and naturalization services.” — Wai-ki E. Luk, Ethnic and Racial Studies

"[A] nuanced, sympathetically written account of the impact on generations of Chinese Americans of the widely practiced fraudulent immigration into the United States by so-called paper sons. . . ." — Roger Daniels, American Historical Review

"Lau is to be commended for her attention to the details of these immigration interrogations, and this book is a must read for anyone interested in how the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization conducted itself during the early years of the nineteenth century." — J. Mann, International Migration and Integration

"Lau provides new perspective on the topic of Chinese exclusion. . . . [T]his book is an important contribution to Chinese American studies." — Haiming Liu, Journal of American Ethnic History

“Original, detailed, and methodologically rigorous, Paper Families shows not only how the Chinese Exclusion Act shaped the identities of Chinese immigrant communities and individuals but also how the efforts of Chinese Americans in turn altered the standards and behavior of federal officials.” — Frank H. Wu, author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White

“This is a wonderfully nuanced case study of the formative period in U.S. immigration policy between the Civil War and the end of World War II. Estelle T. Lau highlights how immigrant identity formation was a two-way process involving both the immigrants and the relentless efforts of immigration officials to exclude them. She deftly and incisively uses her case study to illuminate the evolution of U.S. immigration policy overall.” — Edward O. Laumann, George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Estelle T. Lau is a practicing attorney and an independent scholar. She has a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Harvard University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Identity and Exclusion 1

1. Legislating Exclusion 12

2. Challenges to Exclusion 23

3. Entry Despite Exclusion 33

4. Guardians of the Gate 67

5. Legacies 114

Notes 165

Bibliography 179

Index 207
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3747-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3735-5
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