- Paper Families: Identify, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion
Estelle Lau's Paper Families is a good addition to the existing literature on the infamous Chinese exclusion era. In doing an analysis of the creative ways that many Chinese used to circumvent the exclusion law, Lau sampled 190 cases from the 1885–1943 at the national archives in San Bruno, California. The book contains the obligatory basic descriptions of the laws and policies at play during the era, along with political and legal challenges that the Chinese brought. Lau's chapter on entry begins to show the real contribution that the book makes to our understanding of the era. She does an excellent job of setting forth the motivations and processes whereby paper partners and other paper relatives developed their linking stories to the primary person already lawfully in the United States. As in other publications, Lau walks us through excerpts from several interrogations that took place on Angel Island, for example, including drawings and crib sheets that some detainees used to memorize answers and descriptions that they would be questioned about. These are relationships that, if established, would allow the detainee to enter as the spouse of a merchant or as a merchant's partner, along with other examples that were simply about family relationships.
Lau's chapter on the bureaucrats who enforced the exclusion laws is somewhat reminiscent of Erika Lee's earlier works, but Lau does a good job of succinctly setting forth the evolution of investigative techniques used by interrogators. Her chronological examination of the 190 cases, for example, allows her to find patterns with respect to focus on dialects from village to village, as well as such observations as the fact that by 1905 the inquiry had become more elaborate. Lau could only do this with very close readings of summary decisions by inquiry officers over time, and the reader benefits from her careful research. She also reminds readers of other important parts of the process, such as the significance of the immigrant's age and the need for precision in order for stories to maintain credibility. In the end, she observes that decisions were made by immigration officials by balancing contradictory general impressions and even scientific evidence.
Lau's closing chapter on the legacies of the era is a real contribution. She observes that the Chinese were essentially forced to lie and to cheat in order to get around the racist immigration laws, but regulators attributed that behavior to the Chinese themselves. Over time, that is the theme that becomes prevalent in the world of U.S. immigration enforcement: all immigrants become suspect. Lau's view that "current immigration legislation codifies the presumption that all immigrants seeking to enter the United States do so under a veil of suspicion" is so true today in the post 9/11 era.
When I practiced immigration law as a legal services attorney in San Francisco Chinatown in the 1970s, I represented many of the types of clients that Lau refers to in Paper Families. Her book reminds me of the good people that I met—that in fact were like my own relatives—who simply came to America in search of a better life. Many came with false stories and false documents. But [End Page 808] their lives were not at all false. Their contributions to Gold Mountain made them every bit American.