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The United States’ First National ID System

What is the forgotten history of the United States’ first national identity card system?

September 5, 2007

What is the forgotten history of the United States' first national identity card system?

There's a forgotten history of the United States' first national identity cards. It is a prescient history of racial profiling, of courageous defiance, of U.S. employers tempted by immigrant labor — and of the betrayal of civil liberties in exchange for foreign trade.

U.S. Immigration History
by Jean Pfaelzer
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

On September 19, 1892, the Presidents of the Chinese Six Companies ordered all 110,000 Chinese immigrants in the United States to defy the new Geary Act by committing mass civil disobedience and refusing to carry photo identification cards that proved they were in the country legally. Thousands faced immediate deportation.

The refusal by early Chinese Americans to carry the United States' first internal passport created perhaps the largest organized mass civil disobedience in the United States.

On May 5, 1893, the deadline for registering for the cards passed. The next morning on Mott Street in New York's Chinatown, two Chinese laborers and a laundryman, chosen in advance by the Six Companies, stepped out of a crowd of concerned Chinese and were arrested by a U.S. Marshal for the crime of being Chinese laborers without certificates of residence.

The arrest was monitored by the attaché from the Chinese Legation, the Chinese Vice-Consul and a crowd of reporters and constitutional lawyers.

Judge Addison Brown of the United States District Court in New York immediately ordered the three men deported and set their bail at $500. Fong Yue Ting and Wong Quan declared that their arrests were unconstitutional, that they had been in the country for 13 years — and had always planned to make their home in the United States. They immediately sought habeas corpus petitions.

The Fong Yue Ting vs. United States pleadings were eerily similar to the Guantánamo trials.

The Chinese appealed their deportation order to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking: Did Congress have unfettered power over aliens within the borders of the United States? Did Congress have the right to expel foreigners regardless of treaty obligations? Were Chinese immigrants, by virtue of their long residence, citizens or transient aliens?

Did the Geary Act violate the Fourteenth Amendment's prohibition against the taking of property or liberty without due process? Did an immigrant have the right to challenge the ruling of a custom officer in court? Did the Geary Law violate Fifth and Sixth Amendment protections by permitting imprisonment and hard labor without an indictment or jury trial?

Finally, did deportation itself, "transportation for life," constitute cruel and unusual punishment and violate the Eighth Amendment?

In just five days, before a stunned crowd, the Court announced a 5-3 decision concluding, "No formal proceedings are required and none is necessary." Local police or immigration officers could proceed toward deportation "without trial of any sort."

Because the purpose of the arrest was for deportation rather than imprisonment, a Chinese immigrant had no constitutional right to a trial by jury or to protection against unfair and unusual punishment. Constitutional protections, wrote Justice Gray, "have no application."

Many of the Chinese in the United States had entered illegally, and they now faced immediate deportation even if they tried to register.

China threatened to deport American missionaries and businessmen — just as U.S. exports to China totaled over $15 million, while imports from China were just $4 million (of which $879,000 was for opium).

A summer of violence followed. Fierce roundups struck the hot and fertile valleys of central and southern California. Vigilantes dragged Chinese field workers from their tents, while farmers fired Chinese workers and replaced them with destitute white men who were now willing to do field labor.

Riots broke out from Fresno to Atlanta. Chinatowns across the country were scorched. Vineyards, packing houses and canneries were raided. Chinese homes were bombed.

The federal government would neither stop the race war in the West nor pay to deport thousands of Chinese. Thousands of Chinese languished in jail. And then the situation became worse. On August 30, 1893, Judge Ross ruled that whites could make citizens' arrests under the Geary Act.

Piles and piles of blank warrants were issued to vigilantes. Across the country, the Chinese fled — only to be met by violence elsewhere. The Los Angeles Evening Express headlined triumphantly, "Exodus Begins."

Chinese prisoners, waiting in crowded jails with no trial in the offing, were suing town marshals for false imprisonment and appealing their habeas corpus status to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, deportations remained at a standstill.

Chinese newspapers printed in the United States found their way to China and spread the news of the violence in California — and rumors spread that Americans in China were being massacred in revenge.

In the end, China buckled. Determined to protect trade with the United States, it signed onto an amendment to the Geary Act that provided that a Chinese person was guilty until proven innocent and that denied the rights to bail and habeas corpus.

It also discontinued all legal appeals under the Geary Act, required skilled and unskilled manual laborers to register — and granted Chinese immigrants six more months in the country.

Many hoped that most Chinese would either register or flee to Cuba, Canada or Mexico. Some Chinese immigrants, weary of the brutal violence, viewed deportation as a free ticket home.

Other Chinese continued to fight the dog tag act and launched a general strike during the harvest. Hundreds of Chinese laundrymen, vegetable dealers and cooks in Los Angeles went on strike, even as the jails were bursting and the courts were jammed with habeas corpus demands.

The Chinese Six Companies urged the Chinese to spread out across the United States to make roundups and deportations more difficult.

But an internal passport system was in place. And a new treaty halted immigration from China for the next 50 years. In 1890, 72,000 Chinese people lived in California. That number dropped by half, to 31,000, by 1900. And without women, banned under the Page Act and Exclusion Law, the Chinese population in the United States would continue to decline.

When the Exclusion Act was renewed in 1902, the legal gate on Chinese immigration slammed shut for another 40 years. Not until 1943 did President Roosevelt abolish the act, as a sop to America's ally China in its mutual war against Japan.

Under the quota system, 105 Chinese workers per year were allowed to enter the United States.

Editor’s note: This feature is adapted from “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans” by Jean Pfaelzer. Copyright 2007 by Jean Pfaelzer. Reprinted with permission of the author.