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  • Implementing the 1917 Immigration Act:How One Chinese Immigrant Slipped Through the Cracks of the U.S. Immigration Bureaucracy
  • Suey Wong (bio)

Wong Choy was my great grandfather. He was a typical Chinese immigrant who had come to the United States legally to make a living as a farm laborer in Arizona. He lived during difficult times, working in the United States when the Chinese were not welcomed, during the Exclusion era. His small world, living and working on truck farms along the Arizona-Mexico border, was affected by the vagaries of larger world events. He was mindful of ever-changing U.S. laws, international politics, and unstable foreign governments. Travel was difficult, and he traveled back to China only three times during his fifty-four years in America. Twice he traveled through Mexico without incident. He was not so lucky on his third trip.

Just over a hundred years ago, when he left through San Francisco, Wong Choy was caught in a legal quagmire created by the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917. Upon landing in the United States, immigration inspectors determined him ineligible to return and ordered that he be deported, even though he had met all pre-trip procedural requirements. This article is not intended as a scholarly assessment of Chinese immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead it is the product of my search to understand my ancestor's experiences as an immigrant who was [End Page 79] briefly detained and questioned by federal authorities. It is based largely on immigration records housed at the National Archives, as well as family lore. Wong Choy's story is like many other immigrant's stories. They were often caught between two worlds—their native land and their new home—with a government bureaucracy in the middle. His case ended well for him; many other immigrants were not so lucky.

My father told me Wong Choy was born in 1865 in Ung Sing Li village, Toishan County, Guangdong, China. He was the fourth child of six, in a household with five boys and one girl. 1865 was not an auspicious year to be born in China. The Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), centered in the southern provinces, had finally been crushed. Historians estimate that some twenty million Chinese people died and many more were wounded. Millions were displaced, along with all the attendant refugee miseries that come with civil war. Chinese rebels had sought to overthrow the ruling Manchus of the Qing Dynasty, but the rebels were crushed. The inhabitants of Guangdong were doubly affected, as conflicts arising from the local Red Turban rebels and clan clashes between the Punti and Hakka created more suffering.1

Toishan men traditionally went to foreign lands to earn what they could not at home. Large numbers of Chinese first came to California after the discovery of gold. They later found work building the U.S. transcontinental railroad. But with the completion of railroad in 1869, the Chinese in America needed to find new work. It became increasingly difficult to send home the remittances upon which many Toishan families relied.

Against this backdrop of destructive events in China and the poverty they left in their wake, there were few options for my family. My father said Wong Choy left China in 1877 at age twelve to work in the United States. Today it is hard to imagine the depth of need that would cause a family to send a young boy away for the value of his labor. His eldest brother was already in the United States, serving in the role of the family vanguard looking for employment opportunities. Wong Choy eventually worked on truck [End Page 80]

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Wong Choy emigrated to the United States from China in 1865 at the age of twelve. He returned to China three times for extended stays. On the return from his third trip, he was detained by U.S. immigration officials in 1917. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, San Bruno, California.

farms, a common endeavor for Chinese males in the United States. Census records show that he worked on truck farms in Cochise...


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