How an Earthquake Spawned Massive Immigration Fraud
by Jack Feerick
Natural disasters aren't typically a cause for celebration. But after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Chinese immigrants were feeling some good vibrations. Turns out, the same great quake that set fire to so much of the foggy city also set off a mass influx of Chinese workers to California. In the aftermath of destroyed documents and burned paper trails, a long-running scheme of coordinated immigration fraud emerged that reunited families across the Pacific and opened doors to thousands of overseas laborers.
Since the Gold Rush days, Chinese workers had been coming to California by the thousands. In fact, their labor had become essential to the construction of the transcontinental railroad. And yet, in 1882, pressure from white labor unions forced Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers to America and disqualified workers already in the United States from seeking citizenship. But there was one exception. The Exclusion Act still allowed for the naturalization of family members of U.S.-born citizens. And after the earthquake hit on April 18, 1906, there were suddenly a lot more Chinese-Americans to be found.
The quake, estimated at close to 8.0 on the Richter scale, sparked a series of massive fires that raged for three days and left more than half of San Francisco's population homeless. Roughly 500 square blocks of downtown went up in flames, destroying key municipal buildings and offices—and with them, countless birth and citizenship records. Almost immediately, thousands of quick-thinking Chinese laborers living in the States came forward to claim their U.S. citizenship and report that their records had been lost in the fire. With nothing but ashes to turn to, immigration officials had no choice but to take them at their word. In most cases, citizenship was granted, along with the legal right to import family members from China. Thus arose a strange industry of forged documents, false histories, and "paper families."
Before long, an underground economy of immigration brokers had sprung up on both sides of the Pacific, matching new Chinese-Americans with would-be immigrants. "Paper fathers" in the States and "paper sons" (or, more rarely, "paper daughters") in China were supplied phony documents and coaching letters that laid out their false family histories in minute detail. Often, "paper children" spent their long ocean voyages to America brushing up on their newly written pasts.
Tipped off to the scam, U.S. immigration inspectors detained people arriving from China and interrogated them for hours or even days. Paper children and their paper parents would be grilled separately on the minutiae of their assumed identities—anything from where the family rice bin was kept to what direction their front door faced. Any discrepancy between the two sets of answers was grounds for immediate deportation.
Passing such cruelly stressful tests was surely a huge relief, but it wasn't without its repercussions. The immigrants' false identities had to stay with them for life. Allowed residency but barred from citizenship, the newcomers were vulnerable to deportation at any time. Immigration inspectors could raid their homes without a warrant or stop them in the street at random and demand identification. In some cases, men who'd grown up together had to pretend they were total strangers in order to maintain their cover stories. And any paper son who returned to China for a visit was subject to enduring the whole rigmarole of verification all over again upon his return. On the other hand, countless other biological sons, fathers, and brothers were no longer forced to live isolated from one another across the Pacific.
As a peculiar aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, hundreds of thousands of Chinese entered the United States while the Chinese Exclusion Act was being enforced. Not until 1943, after the United States and China formed an alliance during World War II, was the act repealed—giving Chinese-born U.S. immigrants a chance to live again under their own names.