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Bryan Zehngut-Willits

Cold War Confessions: Chinese Migrants, Geopolitics, and U.S. Immigration Control in the Twentieth Century

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On January 28th, 1958, Yuke Kee Lee became an American. Not only did his citizenship status change, but he also decided to officially prepend his family name with “George” when C.W. Calbreath, clerk of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, signed off on Lee’s certificate of naturalization. This, however, was not the first time that Lee had changed his name when engaging with U.S. immigration officials. As part of his application to change his immigration status, Lee willingly admitted to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that he had first entered the United States under the false name of Shing Yim. What is more, Lee had some minor criminal infractions on his record, and openly admitted that at the start of World War Two he fraudulently claimed to be a U.S. citizen when trying to join the U.S. Army. Still, Lee’s application for citizenship was approved. All of this might appear especially surprising in light of Lee arriving at the Port of San Francisco as a Chinese national in 1922—a time when virtually all immigration from Asia had been banned through a series of discriminatory federal immigration laws.

But Lee applied for citizenship under the Chinese Confession Program. On the surface, this program appears as a liberal reform that ended exclusionary policies by offering amnesty to people of Chinese ancestry who lacked proper documentation. But in reality, the program sought to eliminate undocumented Chinese immigrants or anyone who had secured permanent residence or citizenship through fraudulent means–especially the so called “paper sons.” The program emerged during the Cold War on the heels of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, and gave immigration officials the means to ferret out Chinese in the U.S. who sympathized with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Rather than demonstrating a shift towards a more liberal and open border regime, the Chinese Confession Program and the documents in Lee’s A-File connected to this process serve as a potent example of the perennial link between U.S. foreign policy, immigration policy, and border control.

The laws designed to restrict and exclude Chinese migrants from entering U.S. territory arose from free labor ideology and presumptions about the propensity of the Chinese to have an inherent slave-like mentality. Chinese laborers in the nineteenth century were coded as “coolies,” a term used to describe Asian laborers working under exceptionally exploitative labor contracts that became equated with slavery. Anti-Chinese bigots at this time racialized all Chinese laborors as Coolies, regardless of the nature of their contracts. This formulatino presumed that the willingness of the the Chinese to take contracts that rendered them slaves proved their inherent slavishness. Labor scholars and historians of mid-nineteenth century migrations have shown that the Chinese coming to the U.S. were not in fact coolies, but as Moon-Ho Jung rightly argues, nobody was a coolie, and “the habitual assertions of this false binary–coolies versus immigrants–not only reifies coolies and American exceptionalism but ironically reproduces the logic and rehtoric of nineteenth century debates on whehter Asians in the U.S. were in fact coolies.” Even so, Jung furthers, “Asian workers were surely racialized as coolies across the world, including in the United States.”1 Following the Civil War, those opposed to Chinese migrants argued that the U.S. could not justify the importation of coolie labor after so much blood and treasure had been spent to abolish the practice of African chattel slavery while quashing the rebellion. Labor ideology, racism, and the fallout of the Civil War all contributed to the vaulting of the Anti-Chinese movement to the national stage. As a result, from roughly the 1870s through the 1920s, the federal government passed a series of increasingly restrictive and exclusionary policies that made migration to the U.S. for the Chinese all but impossible unless they found inventive ways to circumvent the nativist laws that excluded them.

However, laws that targeted Chinese migrants exempted from exclusion certain classes of merchants, university students, diplomats, and those who qualified for citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment. Those who established their citizenship, permanent residence, or the right to cross U.S. borders and travel through the U.S. could also bring their immiediate family with them. From the 1880s to the 1940s, the federal government officially allowed roughly 300,000 Chinese to enter under exemptions like these. Still, this number paled in comparison to the millions of migrants from Europe that immigrated to the U.S. in the same period, and many Chinese had to seek extraordinary and extralegal means to gain entry.2

Two seemingly unconnected events converged at the turn of the twentieth century that opened opportunities for Chinese migrants to gain residence in the United States. In 1906 San Francisco suffered a horrendous earthquake and subsequent fire that destroyed much of the city, including the Hall of Records that held birth, marriage, and death records. The destruction of records came on the heels the landmark Supreme Court Case, U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, which reaffirmed that those born with Chinese ancestry in the U.S. held citizenship based on the Fourteenth Amendment. With no records to verify citizenship, family status, or birthplace, and a supreme court ruling that upheld the citizenship claims of natural born Chinese citizens, many male Chinese migrants fraudulently established their citizenship by claiming that they had been born in the U.S. Once verified, legally documented Chinese residents who could travel beewteen the U.S. and China saw an opportunity to help other Chinese who wished to emigrate to the U.S. An unmarried and childless merchant might claim, for example, that he had a wife and children back in China that he wished to bring to the U.S. Since the Chinese government kept few records regarding births or migration, and since U.S. authorities could not verify the status of Chinese migrants with so many of their own records destroyed, many lelgally resident Chinese successfully managed to surreptitiously bring in migrants who posed as immediate family members.3 Known as “paper sons” due to their use of documentation to feign a family connection, male migrants in particular followed this practice with a reltative degree of success. Despite rejection rates of 4-8 percent for Chinese migrants at U.S. ports, as historian Adam McKeown points out, “even immigration agents estimated 70–90 percent of Chinese immigrants gained entry on the basis of fraudulent claims.”4

When the federal government finally began to rescind Chinese exclusion, it was not anti-racism or a liberal shift in the zeitgeist, but geopolitical developments and foreign policy concerns that played the decisive role. In hopes of curbing Japanese wartime propaganda that highlighted the racist, anti-Asian nature of U.S. immigration policy, congress repealed the Chinese exclusion laws in 1943. But, as historian Mae Ngai points out, “Congress’s continued antipathy towards Chinese migration was evident in the annual quota of 105,” a number that unlike the racial quotas for other peoples, included the number of Chinese coming from China as well as any person of Chinese ancestry immigrating from anywhere else in the world, regardless of their citizenship or nationality.5

When Mao Zedong and the CCP emerged triumphant in 1949 after the Chinese Civil War, new fears arose that those Chinese living in the U.S. under false family lineages might be untrackable communist sympathizers. The paper sons therefore became a matter of particular concern for U.S. authorities, and so in the 1950s, cresting on a wave of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, the U.S. State and Justice Departments attempted to put an end to paper migrations by convincing paper sons to confess their fraudulent identities. The INS led what became known as the Chinese Confession Program which promised to help legalize those Chinese who confessed to entering by claiming false family connections or unfounded exemptions. In the process, however, confessors would have to admit the illegal status of the rest of their paper family in addition to any potential connections or sympathies they may have had to organizations deemed by the State and Justice departments as subversive to U.S. interests.6 As historian Beth Lew-Williams argues, The Cold War origins of the program “escalated paper sons’ fears that revelations of undocumented status would bring accusations of communist sympathies.”6 The program sowed fear and distrust throughout the Chinese American community, and in some cases the INS and FBI used the information collected from confessions to deport those who they believed supported the Chinese Communist government.7 “Red baiting did not only come from the government. Right-wing Chinese Americans could intimidate left-leaning paper sons by threatening to reveal their legal status. If paper ties had the power to bind the community together,” argues Lew-Williams, “their forcible unmasking had the potential to tear the community apart.”8

In George Yuke Kee Lee’s case, he claimed to have no family in the U.S., and therefore had no paper family to turn in. But even so, on the N-105 form, “Application to Create Record of Admission for Permanent Residence,” Lee had to swear off anarchism and communism by establishing that he was not “a disbeliever in or opposed to organized government or a member of or affiliated with any organizations or body of persons teaching disbelief in or opposed to organized government.” In filing for naturalization, Lee was also required to list every organization to which he had belonged for the previous ten years both in and outside the U.S. Innocuous as such information might seem, membership in any organization deemed sympathetic to the Communist cause could serve as the grounds for rejection, or might lead to interrogations aimed at forcing an applicant to out other members of organizations eyed with suspicion.

Application to Create Record of Admission for Permanent Residence
A11404493 | Form N-105 (Rev. 6-20-55) | Application to Create Record of Admission for Permanent Residence

The federal government decided that the confession program would not require any legislation and could be implemented simply as a matter of procedure which the INS then systematically deployed over the course of the program’s existence. The program did not provide a blanket amnesty for confessors, and applications for permanent residence had to be filed according to Section 249 of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (McCarran-Walter Act)
Public Law 414

The hallmarks of the confession process are everywhere in Lee’s A-File. Confessors had to undergo an initial interview at an INS district office to “adjust” their immigration status. To support them, confessors had to supply evidence and witnesses who could corroborate their life story. Chong Goo, for whom Lee worked, even echoed the INS’s own procedural language in begging them to do anything they could do get “his immigration status adjusted.”

Letter of Wong Goo to INS
A11404493 | Government Correspondence, Reports, and Memos

Lee’s bible school teacher from the Baptist church that Lee became a member of also used the language of the program when writing to the INS to “help him in getting his immigration status readjusted,” closing his letter by stating again that “anything the Immigration Service can do to help him to get his status readjusted,” would be “highly appreciated.”

Morality also played a vague yet important role for confessors seeking to clear their record. As per the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (see above), applicants for a “record of admission for permanent residence” also had to prove that they were of “good moral character.” What, precisely, demonstrated “good moral character” proved as vague in the law as it did when Lee’s witnesses spoke on his behalf. Chong Goo confided that for years he had known Lee to “be a person of good moral character,” and added that he liked him “very much.” Another colleague, Alfred Lee, also found George to be of “high integrity and good moral character,” and his boss at the Stockton Poultry Market likewise admitted that over many years he had “known him to be a person of high moral quality,” and was also “very fond of him.”

A certain irony remains, of course, in state powers demanding that confessors prove their moral integrity through a process where confessors openly admit to disregarding the laws of that same state. As Monserrat Gabisch points out in The Hypocrisy of Naturalization 10, a moral tension has persisted in federal American immigration law from the moment the law began targeting Chinese migrants for exclusion and ineligibility for citizenship on racial grounds. Ngai argues likewise that while “authorities believed Chinese were immoral because they knowingly broke the law, Chinese believed paper immigration was morally justified because it was one of the few ways to enter the United States when exclusion made legal immigration impossible. Chinese believed exclusion was immoral, even if it was illegal.”11 But with the repeal of Chinese exclusion in the 1940s, and the federal government’s subsequent willingness to accept Chinese who had circumvented the law before its repeal, the U.S. government tacitly signaled its own acknowledgement of the injustice of exclusion.

Following the initial interviews and submission of corroborating evidence, the INS, with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then performed their own investigation into the applicant’s history. In Lee’s case, most of what he claimed appeared legitimate to the authorities except for a vagrancy charge drudged up by the Sacramento Police Department from twenty years prior, but this apparently did not prove detrimental enough to disqualify him from having his status adjusted.

Applicants who wished to make a record of lawful admission for permanent residence had to prove that they:

  1. entered the United States prior to July 1, 1924
  2. had resided in the country continuously since such entry
  3. were a person of good moral character
  4. were not subject to deportation
  5. were not ineligible for citizenship

George Yuke Kee Lee was able to prove all of these points to the satisfaction of his examining officer, C.C. Schave, and to the San Francisco district director of the INS, Bruce G. Barber, who signed off on recommending that Lee’s application for creation of a record of admission for permanent residence be granted.

Lee’s case proved the rule rather than the exception. According to historian Madeline Hsu, “by 1965, 11, 336 Chinese had participated willingly, with 19,124 implicated in the confessions of others forced to do so as well.”10 While Ngai points out that, “the vast majority of the thirty thousand people involved in the program did in fact become legally resident aliens or naturalized citizens,” the program sowed a great deal of fear and division into the Chinese American community, and ultimately allowed the federal government to re-calculate the number of unused quota slots for admissible Chinese, eliminating about 5,800.12 “Only about 13 percent of the Chinese American population of 1960 (237,292) had cooperated willingly or unwillingly,” furthers Hsu, “with most who did so remaining in the United States cleared of the shadows of exclusion, while most of those who had stayed silent were able to do pretty much the same”13

As beneficial as it may have been for someone like George Yuke Kee Lee who sought the opportunity to become a naturalized U.S. citizen following the gradual (if modest) reforms to Chinese exclusion in the mid twentieth century, these reforms must be understood in the context of global events and U.S. foreign policy. U.S. involvement in World War Two, the victory of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, and the subsequent Second Red Scare all shaped immigration policy and procedure as it related to the Chinese. The Chinese confession program therefore emerged as the federal government’s response to the exigencies of Cold War politics rather than an altruistic reversal of the blatant discrimination embodied in its exclusion era immigration policies.


  1. Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 4. ↩︎

  2. Erika Lee, The Making of Chinese America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 95; Madeline Hsu. “Gold Mountain Dreams and Paper Son Schemes: Chinese Immigration Under Exclusion.” Chinese America: History and Perspectives (1997): 46-60. ↩︎

  3. Lew-Williams, Beth. “Paper Lives of Chinese Migrants and the History of the Undocumented.Modern American History 4, no. 2 (2021): 116. ↩︎

  4. McKeown, Adam. “Ritualization of Regulation: The Enforcement of Chinese Exclusion in the United States and China.” The American Historical Review 108, no. 2 (April 2003): 378. ↩︎

  5. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton University Press, 2005), 203. ↩︎

  6. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 204, 220. ↩︎ ↩︎2

  7. Lew-Williams, Beth. “Paper Lives”, 125. ↩︎

  8. Takaki, Ronald. Strangers froom a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1998), 416. ↩︎

  9. Lew-Williams, Beth. “Paper Lives”, 125. ↩︎

  10. Full credit goes to Monserrat Gabisch for first identifying and exploring Lee’s A-File in our 2021 class, Asylum in Crisis ↩︎ ↩︎2

  11. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 219. ↩︎

  12. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 206. ↩︎

  13. Madeline Hsu, The Good Immigrants: How the yellow peril became the model minority. (Princeton University Press, 2015). ↩︎