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Race, Nationality, and Reality: INS Administration of Racial Provisions in US Immigration and Nationality Law Since 1898, Part 2 of 8

by Marian L. Smith

It was the lack of uniformity among naturalization courts and procedure, and the fraud it bred, that underlay Congress's establishment of the U.S. Naturalization Service by the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 (34 Stat. 596). The law placed the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in "charge of all matters concerning the naturalization of aliens," with the general purpose of promoting uniform naturalization practices nationwide. While this seemed a clear mission, bureau officers would soon learn that influencing the courts—especially nonfederal courts—presented a persistent obstacle. Furthermore, inconsistencies within nationality law would prove difficult to reconcile. Among the most difficult was the issue of racial eligibility to citizenship.

As the bureau began its work, it found racial eligibility already a complicated subject. Though §2169 contained the broad rule regarding white persons and persons of African descent, an act of April 9, 1866, and the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution decided "all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are declared to be citizens of the United States." In 1898 the Supreme Court confirmed that the amendment applied to the U.S. -born children of Chinese and to others prohibited by law from becoming naturalized.[6] Thus §2169 set racial qualifications for naturalization only; it did not apply to citizenship conferred by birth. Congress also, at times, ignored §2169 and used its original authority over naturalization to extend U.S. citizenship to groups of racially ineligible aliens. Numerous Native Americans were naturalized by treaty during the nineteenth century as were Chinese-born citizens of Hawaii at the time of annexation.[7]

The 1906 naturalization law retained §2169 limiting racial eligibility to citizenship, but as noted above, that language was not clear. By mixing references to color and geographic origin, the law displayed a then-popular confusion, or equation, of race with nationality. And if the vague language used to convey congressional intent regarding race was frustrating to federal naturalization officials at the turn of the century, the problem only worsened as time passed. Racial theory and terminology evolved each decade. "Racial" understanding associated with the eugenics movement was largely if not completely discredited after World War II, yet §2169 remained the nationality law of the land. Even when amended by Congress, the addition of equally vague language regarding additional "races" only served to increase Naturalization Service difficulties in administering the law.

While naturalization officials fielded questions about whether the term "race" meant color or nationality after 1906, they also encountered a third use of the term by immigration officials who operated within the same bureau. The U.S. Immigration Service developed its own conception of race during the late 1890s in an effort to improve immigration statistics at the port of New York. Ellis Island officials created a "List of Races or Peoples" with which to classify arrivals at that immigration station. The list of races was expressly "not intended to be an ethnological classification," nor was it to be "a history of an immigrant's antecedents." Rather, it was considered a practical tool devised by immigration officers familiar with the growing flow of immigrants into the United States, a tool that grouped together "people who maintain recognized communities." Statistics concerning such recognizable groups were deemed valuable as predictors of where such immigrants might settle and what occupations they would follow. An immigrant's race or people often decided these questions because, as one of its authors explained, "an immigrant is bound to ally himself with people of his own language already here and will enter the pursuits in which these people have found they can succeed."[8]

Immigration officials, and their List of Races or Peoples, employed the term "race" as we might use the term "ethnicity." Yet even among Ellis Island immigration officers, experts in identifying an immigrant's origin by his language or dress, "common understanding" was not universal. Rather, inspectors were as apt as the general public to use the terms race and nationality synonymously. Victor Safford, a medical doctor at Ellis Island and one author of the List of Races or Peoples, admitted there were "different ideas as to what these statistics are intended to show." As an experiment, he asked different immigrant inspectors to classify the same immigration passenger manifest record and found "confusion as to nationality, race and residence and a lack of agreement as to the territorial limits of the districts specified."[9] For the moment, the relation of race to ethnicity or nationality was an academic question for Safford and the Immigration Service. Immigration law contained no reference to race beyond the exclusion of Chinese. When Congress did insert the word "race" into the Immigration Act of 1903, the purpose was to extend application of the List of Races or Peoples statistical scheme to all U.S. ports of entry.[10]

Until Congress instituted the national origins system of racial quotas in 1924, the "race question" remained primarily a headache for the Naturalization Service. As noted above, when the service began its work in 1906, the courts had not come to a clear definition of who was or was not a white person. The very existence of the Naturalization Division within the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, however, grew from Congress's mandate that it oversee and guide naturalization work by the courts. Naturally, those with questions about naturalization addressed them to the division. The clerk of the U.S. District Court in St. Louis, for example, asked in early 1907 whether the term "white person" in §2169 in the statutes and in the division's Naturalization Regulation 21 designated "only those whose color is actually white or does it further include all persons of what is ethnologically known as the white or caucasian race?"[11]

[6] US v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 US 649 (1898).

[7] Marian L. Smith, "The INS and the Singular Status of North American Indians," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21 (1997): 131-154.

[8] Statistical Rules, 1898, file 52729/ 9, box 143, Entry 9, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group (RG) 85, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC. Patrick Weil provides additional interpretation of the List of Races and Peoples in "Races at the Gate: A Century of Racial Distinctions in American Immigration Policy (1865-1965)," Georgetown Immigration Law Journal 15 (Summer 2001): 625-648.

[9] Victor Safford to the Commissioner of Immigration, June 8, 1898, file 52729/9, box 143, Entry 9, RG 85, NAB.

[10 Immigration Act of March 3, 1903, §12, 32 Stat. 1213. Section 12 required that race be included among the information provided on immigration manifests, a requirement included in subsequent immigration laws.

[11] James R. Gray, Clerk, US District Court, St. Louis, to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, Jan. 1, 1907, file 19783/1-24, box 1572, Entry 26, RG 85, NAB.

About The Author

Marian L. Smith is the senior historian for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Washington, D.C. She writes and speaks about the history of the agency. The author thanks Roger Daniels of the University of Cincinnati for his encouragement and good advice in the writing of this article. Readers may contact Ms. Smith at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.