Our new exhibit opens June 15! Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates draws from the millions of immigration case files in the National Archives to tell a few of these stories from the 1880s through World War II.
Come and explore the attachment of immigrants to family and community, and the attachment of government organizations to laws that reflected certain beliefs about immigrants and citizenship. There are dramatic tales of joy and disappointment, opportunity and discrimination, deceit and honesty.
“Attachments” will be on view through September 4 in the National Archives. Admission is free!
With the country continually expanding and growing, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Acts in 1862, authorizing two companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to construct a transcontinental railroad. Work began the next year, and eventually over 18,000 Chinese, German, Irish, and Italian immigrants worked on the project. The last spike was driven on May 10, 1869, in a ceremony at Promontory, Utah.
Memorial and Joint Resolution relative to a grant of Lands, 2/11/1858, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives
Letter from Secretary of the Interior, 1/14/1869, Records of the U.S. Senate
Guest Blog: What’s a feminist social historian doing at the Center for Legislative Archives?
The records described in this blog entry were screened by Center staff before they were served. All modern records in the Center, especially those containing personal information like private bills, require screening by our staff to ensure privacy is properly protected. For more information about House and Senate access rules, visit http://www.archives.gov/legislative/research/rules-of-access.html.
I admit it. I approached my two recent research trips to the CLA at Archives I with more than a little trepidation. I knew next to nothing about the record groups and the indexes. I was (and will be for some time) working on the history of transnational adoption to the United States in the period just after WWII, and I knew that the legislative records would lead me through the changes, amendments, false starts and new directions in US immigration law that provided the legal mechanism for the admission of children adopted abroad. But, I thought of this research as the backdrop or scaffolding for frankly more interesting and compelling work on the people and places of transnational adoption that I would pursue in venues more familiar to me as a social historian and an historian of women and gender.
Nonetheless, I soon found myself deep in the House and Senate bill files generated as tens of thousands of private immigration bills made their way through Congress in the late 1940s and the 1950s. The Private Immigration Bills were a work-around for exclusions and dead-ends in the quota system governing immigration to the United States. Private Immigration Bills asked for “The Relief of*” a potential immigrant whose case somehow fell outside the bounds of the existing system and/or who had a compelling humanitarian tale to tell. A small subset of these bills - still several hundred from the later 1940s to the late 1950s - were bills “For the relief of*” minor children who had been or were to be adopted by US citizens. Most of these bills asked that for the purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act the child be considered the natural born (vs. adopted) alien child of the adopting parents, thus removing the requirement that the child qualify on her or his own for a quota number that might take years to obtain. Other of the bills asked that the racial exclusions to citizenship laid out in the pre-1952 Immigration and Nationality Act not apply in this case, a crucial stipulation as returning US service families tried to bring Japanese children into the United States.
With (invaluable) help from archivists Rod Ross and Bill Davis, I worked out a way to find the successful private adoption bills (my terminology) inside the overwhelming mass of successful and failed private immigration bills. What I found in the printed committee reports and in the bill files for these adoption bills was astonishing in its richness. The reports, and especially the bill files themselves, tell deeply moving stories of war and separation, of families torn apart and of families re-created through extended biological kin networks and the invented kin of adoption. The bill files contain letters from adoptive parents, birth parents and occasionally children. They show how adoptive parents used their personal and financial resources to portray themselves as solid citizens capable of raising a new American citizen, and they detail the tragic loss of families and communities seeing no better option than to relinquish their children. They tell the tales of war and civil war, of romance and abandonment, of Cold War realpolitik, and of children’s need for love, security, food and education. They are tales of hope, and of tragedy, and they often moved me to tears. Most touching of all were the photographs of children and families often tucked inside the letters. The photos were sent, as one adoptive mother wrote to the Congressman sponsoring her legislation, “so that you may see who you are helping out.”
My research in the bill files is just beginning, but I hope that I have conveyed my path of discovery and my very rich (if unexpected) research experience at the Center for Legislative Archives.
Letter from 2nd Lt. Don Dutchess, 2/11/1953, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives
This post was written by a researcher, Dr. Karen Balcom, using records from the Center for Legislative Archives. Dr. Balcom is an associate professor of History and Gender Studies and Feminist Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She is the author most recently on The Traffic in Babies: Cross-Border Adoption and Baby-Selling between Canada and the United States, 1930-1972(University of Toronto Press, 2011). She is working on a monograph on intertwined histories of transnational adoption and US immigration policy in the period 1945-1961.