Sign Up

US: Dog Tags for Chinese Immigrants

Seizing on anti-immigrant sentiment before an election is not a new phenomenon in the U.S. It goes back to the 19th century.

August 10, 2019

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on September 3, 2007.

On September 19, 1892, the presidents of the Chinese Six Companies, initially organizations of Chinese merchants established in major cities across the United States, ordered all 110,000 Chinese immigrants in the United States to commit mass civil disobedience.

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

Red leaflets appeared on the walls and windows of Chinatowns throughout the country commanding Chinese to defy the new Geary Act that required Chinese residents to carry a photo identification card to prove that they were legal immigrants.

Thousands honored the call to disobey the "Dog Tag Law," and they faced immediate deportation. Their refusal to carry an identity card, America's first internal passport, created perhaps the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the United States.

The identification cards had their roots in slavery. Before the Civil War, enslaved blacks had often been forced to carry identifying passes when they left their plantations — and free blacks were required to bear papers proving that they were not slaves.

Now, following four decades of forced expulsions in the Pacific Northwest, Chinese immigrants were similarly compelled to carry an "orderly scheme of individual identification and certification" to "protect their right to remain in the country."

In 1892, with a presidential election fast approaching, Democratic congressman Thomas Geary of Sonoma County California, had seized on anti-Chinese sentiment.

He wrote an identification bill that easily passed the House of Representatives, 178-43, and the Senate, 30-15. The Geary Act gave a Chinese laborer one year to register for a certificate or face immediate deportation.

The identity card was to contain two duplicate photographs that were "securely affixed to the papers by strongly adhesive paste… The photographs shall be sun pictures, such as are usually known as card photographs, of sufficient size and distinctness to plainly and accurately represent the entire face of the applicant, the head to be not less than 1.5 inches from base of hair to base of chin."

The Geary Act initiated an intense two-year struggle as the Chinese defied restrictive judicial decisions, repressive congressional acts and mob violence.

As soon as the 1892 act was signed into law by President Harrison, the Six Companies declared, "No other nation in the world treats Chinese like the United States does… We must organize and subscribe money to hire lawyers to defend ourself. We must…complain to the ambassadors of our own Government to help us fight against this injustice."

The Geary Act did more than require the Chinese to wear identification cards. It extended the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law to ban immigration based on race, for ten more years and restated the ban against Chinese immigrants becoming U.S. citizens.

Another humiliating provision called for two white witnesses to testify to a Chinese person's immigration status. This was the first time a federal statute included a racial condition on the right to testify.

And it was the first time that illegal immigration became a federal crime punishable by a year's imprisonment with hard labor

Tom Riordan, the San Francisco attorney who had represented the Chinese in earlier civil rights suits, stated: "This Act is clearly unconstitutional…if a Chinaman is found in this country without a certificate, the burden of proof in showing that he has a right to remain here is thrown upon him, whereas the Constitution provides that in an action of this kind the man is presumed innocent until he is proved guilty and then the proof of his guilt falls on the Government."

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.