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Monserrat Gabisch

The Hypocrisy of Naturalization

Published on

Throughout American history, immigrants have faced significant barriers on the way to naturalization. In specific cases like the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Barred Zone Act (barred the middle east to southeast Asian from entering) legislation was used to target certain nationalities, races, and genders from entering the US. The arduous immigration process is complicated as is but with the enactment and withdrawal of additional discriminatory laws, immigrants often face confusion regarding their eligibility for legal entry. Additionally, this impermanence brings to question the legitimacy of the naturalization process; for many, the US Immigration Bureau’s regular position reversals signify ethical baselessness and reveal the true motivations behind immigration policy: money and power. George Yuke Lee, a Chinese immigrant who successfully became naturalized during the era of the Chinese Exclusion act, serves as a rare exception to an exclusionary immigration policy that has since been overturned. Lee’s case, including the legal obstacles he had to overcome in order to become a US citizen, further sheds light upon the morally contentious nature of the American naturalization process.

The United States Immigration Bureau and its supporters unwaveringly defend the validity of its policies, arguing that: the United States government ought to value present citizens over prospective ones; high immigration levels contribute to overcrowding and high unemployment; and integration of members of other cultures conflicts with American values. Whether these arguments have factual validity or not, their persistent use has made American discriminatory measures against immigrants a major part of its legacy. For immigrants of Asian descent, it began as early as 1864, when Chinese immigrants were hired to build the transcontinental railroad. Nearly 20,000 immigrants contributed to building the American railroad system while being underpaid, discriminated against, and malnourished; hundreds died from explosions, landslides, and rampant disease (Kennedy1). Despite Chinese immigrants’ massive contributions to American infrastructure, anti-Chinese rhetoric grew across the nation during California’s post-boom economic depression in the 1870s. Politicians took advantage of the public’s xenophobic sentiments and became politically successful by appealing to “the racist white majority” (Gerber chp 2 pg 1). Anti-Chinese propaganda eventually gained much of the nation’s support; many Americans blamed the Chinese for causing lower wages and the economic depression. Eventually, this turn in popular opinion culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned nearly all Chinese immigrants and declared all Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization2. Immigration ports immediately began to closely scrutinize and interrogate all Chinese immigrants, requiring more elaborate documentation; this juxtaposed the comparatively simple process millions of Europeans seeking entrance experienced during this era (Gerber chp 2 pg 3).

Shortly after World War I, the United States fell into another economic depression and its citizens once again began to search for a scapegoat to blame for their poverty; feeding on Americans’ fear of immigrants taking over unskilled labor sectors, US politicians passed another exclusionary law: The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. Using a quota system, this act put a global cap on the number of immigrants granted United States residency depending on the nation from which they came. While this act contained little explicit criticism of immigrants and praised their capacity for work and many sacrifices to achieve self-improvement (Gerbert chp 2 pg 10), it also included a provision excluding from entry to the United States any immigrant who, by virtue of race or nationality, was ineligible for citizenship. Existing nationality laws excluded people of Asian descent from becoming naturalized, and as a result, the 1924 Act meant that even Asians not previously barred from immigrating – the Japanese in particular – would no longer be admitted to the United States3.

Despite the racist legislation and popular opinion of this era, some Chinese immigrants were able to successfully enter the United States and lead successful lives. George Yuke Lee, born in 1906, lived in Canton, China for 16 years before he arrived at a port in San Francisco in 1922. He was a maritime crewman who entered without facing much inspection; this allowed him to live a life undetected by the immigration system. One day in 1957, Lee began the official immigration process by completing his alien registration form, which stated his original date of entry, personal information, and family history—information required of all immigrants to the United States.

On the same day, Lee filed for an Application to Create a Record of Admission for Permanent Residence (RAPR), otherwise known as an application to prove past residency in the US. Attached with the RAPR came a series of letters, certificates, and a social security number— information crucial to understanding the life Lee had lived in the past 35 years. Contrary to popular belief, some noncitizens can obtain a social security number (SSN) if they have been authorized to work by the Department of Homeland Security. However, Lee entered the US illegally, so how he obtained an SSN remains unclear.

In order to complete his RAPR, Lee also had to provide evidence of employment throughout his time in the US. These records reveal that when Lee first arrived, he immediately began working as an apprentice in a Chinese-owned barbershop and later became a certified barber. His file also includes a notarized letter from his boss confirming his employment and moral character, demonstrating the lengths to which RAPR applicants must go to prove their past employment.

Shortly after initially applying for RAPR, Lee began his process towards naturalization. Initially, the Petition for Naturalization is where immigrants sign, “It is my intention in good faith to become a citizen,” highlighting the emphasis on moral character present in the US immigration system. Then, the immigrant must complete the Naturalization Petition Worksheet and Application to File Petition for Naturalization. In Lee’s application to file a petition for naturalization, he stated where he had lived, disclosed his criminal history, and detailed his past employment. Under the criminal record section, Lee had a vagrancy charge from 1937. During this time, homelessness was viewed as an active choice to refrain from contributing to society, rather than a condition imposed upon people as a result of poverty. Immigrants were expected to be morally outstanding residents who actively improved American society; as is visible due to the red penmanship on Lee’s application, immigration officers verified his vagrancy charge, confirming the perceived relevance of committing this ‘crime’ to Lee’s overall character. These edits also reveal that naturalization officials already had access to all of Lee’s information prior to his application submission but still asked him to provide it in great detail—a fact that implies purposeful complication of the naturalization process with the express goal of weeding applicants out.

(See page two of above)

Lee’s success at obtaining naturalization despite his undocumented status and possession of a criminal record can be attributed to the Chinese Confession Program, which operated from 1956 to 1965—after shifts im American popular opinion led immigration policies barring Asians from entry to the US to end. Sponsored by the American Immigration Bureau and FBI, The Chinese Confession Program (CCP) regularized the statuses of many Chinese Americans who had entered the US ``us[ing] some form of immigration fraud under the discriminatory Chinese exclusion laws.4” This landmark program served to formally acknowledge that fraudulent activity was bound to happen under discriminatory legislation by allowing previously ‘illegal aliens’ vulnerable to deportation to become United States citizens. It also solidified the Eisenhower administration’s political stance on the previous exclusionary policies; by allowing individuals who committed immigration fraud under past laws, the Immigration Bureau and FBI acknowledged the unethical nature of those laws, thus calling into question the ethical validity of all American immigration policies in existence today.

The United States naturalization process requires immigrants to show an intense level of commitment and a great deal of moral character, especially regarding a lack of past involvement in criminal activity. However, the institution of the CCP in 1956 formally recognized the immoral nature of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, among other exclusionary immigration policies, shedding light upon the ethical flimsiness of many American policies, including those which immigrants were expected to adhere to. Is the United States immigration system built on morality and equal opportunity, as the phrasing of its policies is bound to suggest, or does it only serve to perpetuate existing economic, social, and racial disparities in favor of economic, social, and racial elites? Amongst the uncertainty, it is clear we should think twice about chastising those deemed undeserving of citizenship by a system built upon fluctuating social and political opinion—particularly when so many of its policies have been permanently overturned.

Notes

[https://www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-chinese-immigrants]{.ul} ↩︎ [https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/chinese-immigration]{.ul} ↩︎ [https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act]{.ul} ↩︎ [https://immigrationhistory.org/item/chinese-confession-program/]{.ul} ↩︎