In this video post, two New Yorkers talk about how the first people in their families to become American citizens were paper sons.
A bit more about paper sons:
Paper sons were especially prevalent at the turn of the 20th century in California– Hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants had arrived to participate in the 1849 Gold Rush and stayed to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Many were also fleeing the Taiping Rebellion in southern China (1850-1864), which claimed 20 million lives. By 1880, over 300,000 Chinese immigrants (almost all men) constituted one-tenth of the Californian population. At the same time, the economic crisis after the Civil War fueled animosity towards the Chinese. Labor leaders, policy-makers, and crowds drove Chinese immigrants from mines, prohibited them from becoming citizens or marrying white folks, forcibly relocated to Chinatowns in major cities, and largely banned Chinese women from immigrating. These explicit and de facto public policies culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigration from China.
In this context, many of the Chinese men who had already been living in the United States strategized to become “paper sons.” In the meantime, some calculated that if every Chinese-born man who claimed his birth certificate had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake had truly been a registered immigrant, then every existing Chinese-American woman in San Francisco at the time must have given birth to 800 sons.
The government repealed the Exclusion Act via the 1943 Magnuson Act, which limited new entries to 105 a year. (Supposedly, certain countries could emigrate the equivalent of 2% of their respective 1890 US immigrant populations each year… but according to census figures, the annual quota for China should have been over 2,000.) Many Chinese were still not allowed to own businesses or enjoy full citizenship rights until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which replaced the national quota system with one that emphasizes family reunification and applicants’ skills.
Much of the immigration from China to New York took place after 1949 and especially after 1965, when immigration laws were a bit more relaxed, and many of these new immigrants were relatively privileged, with the resources and skills to gain legal visas. While “tiger moms” and “paper tigers” get mass press coverage (and are analyzed nicely here and here), paper sons present less prominent, more complex, multi-layered stories of Chinese immigrants in the US. They come with no instructions.
(Picture used via public domain, work of the federal government, under Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.)