Migrant Knowledge

Clashing Ways of Knowing at the Moment of Immigration

We can consider the historical nexus between migration and knowledge from different angles, as this blog demonstrates. Historical waves of migration can be looked at as an experience that profoundly shaped what individuals knew. We can also examine the forms of knowledge that surrounded the process of migrating. What did historical actors have to know to relocate? Moreover, we can analyze the ways in which academic or governmental institutions created knowledge about migrants and the effects of such efforts. Finally, knowledge itself was highly mobile. It could accompany individuals who had already internalized it; it could migrate “by way of documents“; or it could move of its own accord as part of an “imperial cloud.”1

Here I would like to sketch out an additional approach to the history of migration and knowledge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather than focusing on a particular aspect of this multilayered relationship, I propose to zoom in on a specific moment in the migration process, namely the border crossing. We can read this situation as a condensed point in time at which different “ways of knowing,” to borrow John Pickstone’s phrase,2 interacted to determine the outcome: Migrants had to prove their right to enter sovereign territory, and border agents had to critically evaluate these claims against the backdrop of existing regulations. This could be a short, routinized practice, but the moment could quickly expand whenever authorities doubted a migrant’s right to cross a border. In such situations, legitimate claims did not always have the upper hand. Only recently, amidst the stepped-up border enforcement under the current U.S. administration, a young American citizen ended up in a detention center in Texas. When he tried to cross the U.S.–Mexican border, immigration officers grew suspicious of his documents and ultimately became convinced they were fake. They held him for almost four weeks.3 This was a harsh, though certainly not unique example of a prolonged moment of immigration, that was, in this case, ultimately successful.

I would like to take a closer look at the role knowledge played in such constellations. What kinds of knowledge influenced a given situation? How did these varieties of knowledge interact, compete, or clash? And what mechanisms determined their relative weight in times of conflict?

Contested Immigration

A case study from a less recent period of American history will serve as an example to explore my idea. Between 1882 and 1943, a series of federal laws restricted immigration from China to the United States. In times of the Chinese (and later Asian) exclusion, Chinese laborers were strictly banned from entering the country.4 Other groups were exempted, notably merchants and students (who would not compete for jobs with American workers) as well as relatives of persons already legally residing in the United States. The humiliation and suffering of Chinese people who tried to circumvent the restrictions as well as of those who were indeed entitled to come to America has been well documented. San Francisco’s Angel Island immigration station came to symbolize this infamous period in American history. For many migrants, however, this island in San Francisco Bay provided the desired opportunity to finally reach American shores. Among these people were the so-called paper sons, who tried to enter the United States by claiming they were related to U.S. residents. Since relevant records, such as birth certificates, had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire, lost knowledge played an important role in this fraud. Authorities attempted to compensate for missing documentation by devising elaborate interrogation schemes. They thoroughly tested a migrant’s knowledge about their alleged family history. During this process, intimate and convincing knowledge became the key to the United States.

The National Archives at San Francisco holds countless immigration files documenting successful and unsuccessful efforts by Chinese people to enter the country. In San Bruno, I came across the case of Wong Kum Wo, who took his chances not in the bottleneck of San Francisco but in the U.S. Territory of Hawaii.5 As a result of intensive labor migration since the mid-nineteenth century, Hawai’i had a large Chinese population and thus saw the frequent travel of contract laborers from and to Asia. In 1914, Wong arrived in Honolulu. Local immigration officials quickly challenged his right to enter U.S. territory, and he was deported to China in November 1915 after a fierce legal struggle. Several interrogations took place and multiple court appeals were rejected. Besides immigration officials, lawyers and judges, family, friends, neighbors as well as a museum director, a professor from Berlin and a security guard became involved. Not every immigration case produced such voluminous files. At times, the immigration process went rather smoothly. On other occasions, rejected immigrants did not appeal their decision. For my purposes, however, Wong’s story is especially illuminating because the whole affair explicitly centered on different forms of knowledge, that is, on their credibility and value. The question of parentage lay at the core of the case and was closely interlinked with the issue of ethnicity. Wong maintained that he had been born in Hawai’i in 1892 to a Chinese father and a Hawaiian mother. In the immigration officials’ assessment, however, he appeared to be fully Chinese, not of mixed heritage. In the following months, each side brought several witnesses to the immigration station to make its case. Ultimately, a court had to weigh in and decided to dismiss Wong’s appeal. In the preceding legal battle, at least three different forms of knowledge competed: private knowledge or memory; practical knowledge or experience; and scientific knowledge or expertise.

Private Knowledge or Memory

Over the course of long interrogations, Wong presented details about his family background and his stay in China. Several witnesses produced by his lawyers supported his testimony and recognized him as said Wong Kum Wo, notably a childhood friend, a neighbor, and a sibling. His alleged parents also confirmed the story but failed to identify him during a meeting in the immigration station. The lawyers explained this with the father’s poor eyesight and the mother’s being “ignorant, forgetful and stupid.”6 The immigration officials, on the other hand, believed it “unthinkable that a mother would not recognize her offspring, even though she had not seen her child for a space of 14 years.”7 Moreover, they detected inconsistencies in Wong’s story. Family history and irregularities in personal memory only assumed secondary importance, however. The dispute soon centered on the issue of ethnicity.

Practical Knowledge or Experience

Immigration officials did not believe Wong was half Hawaiian. To justify this opinion, they referred to their professional experience, especially their frequent contact with people from China. They also called on additional witnesses for their assessments, among them a Japanese publisher from Honolulu, a Chinese interpreter, a moulder at the local iron works, and the chief watchman at the U.S. immigration station in Honolulu. Wong’s lawyers fiercely attacked the standing of the witnesses. The documents show a heated dispute over the question of competence to make a material judgment about a person’s ethnicity. In the eyes of the lawyers, being of Chinese-Hawaiian birth (like the interpreter) or having lived and worked among Chinese and Hawaiians (like the other witnesses) did not count as expertise. The immigration agents, by contrast, insisted on the greater value of practical experience in such circumstances.

Scientific Knowledge or Expertise

To refute the doubts about Wong’s parentage, his lawyers arranged for several experts to examine him during his detention. They considered anthropological expertise especially relevant as this science was committed to the study of “human races” and their alleged characteristics and qualities. Thus, the lawyers asked William Tufts Brigham, the first director of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, and Professor Felix von Luschan, a professor of anthropology at Berlin University who happened to be in Hawai’i at the time, to meet with Wong. Luschan had been on a research trip to Australia when the Great War broke out and left that country to make his way back to Berlin via the still neutral United States. In September 1914, he arrived in Honolulu and decided to use the opportunity to conduct further research and to meet his colleague Brigham, who had invited Luschan to work with him at the museum for a couple of weeks.8 Both experts agreed to examine Wong and both declared him to be of mixed heritage. For their part, the immigration officials dismissed Brigham’s verdict outright. Due to the complex and technical nature of his science, he had refused to explain the grounds for his assessment. This attitude discredited him in the officials’ eyes because, to them, scientific knowledge was also supposed to be intelligible for laypeople. As Luschan took the time to explain his opinion, his testimony seemed more valuable, although they dismissed it in the end. According to the agents, the “distinguished anthropologist” lacked practical experience, the “advantage of years of residence in Hawaii and the opportunity to observe Hawaiians and Chinese.”9

In his affidavit, the professor himself strengthened the position of practical knowledge vis-à-vis scientific knowledge. In the field of anthropology, he stated, experience could make up for learned knowledge: “Education makes no difference, if the person is intelligent and careful his opinion would be worth just as much as that of an anthropologist.”10 Whether Luschan made this statement because he truly believed laypersons equally knowledgable as experts or because he felt uncomfortable being dragged into a legal dispute, the final court ruling echoed his view:

In order to qualify as an expert witness competent to give an opinion as to the nationality of a certain person, it is not necessary that the witness should be learned in the science of ethnology, but it is sufficient if he have [sic ] long experience and familiarity with people of the respective races to which the person in question is contended to belong.11

Postcard of Honolulu Immigration Station, ca. 1908.

Learned Knowledge versus Practical Competence

This exploratory example highlights the interactions of different forms of knowledge in the Honolulu immigration case. In this month-long “moment” of an unsuccessful border crossing, practical knowledge or experience ended up trumping the personal knowledge of Wong and the scientific knowledge of Brigham and Luschan. The judge decided in favor of the immigration officials and ordered that Wong be removed to China. Yet such cases did not always end this way. There was still the paper son system, for instance, which operated for for decades. In countless cases intimate knowledge about a “paper family’s” history and background indeed paved the way to the United States.12

On such occasions of border crossing, knowledge could become almost tangible, especially when disagreement or conflict arose. The lines between different ways of knowings, however, were often blurred, as Wong’s case illustrates. Laypeople could be granted expert status by a learned expert. The validity of scientific knowledge could be measured according to its degree of intelligibility to the unlearned. A closer look at both contested and relatively frictionless moments of immigration might afford deeper insights into the historical relationship between migration and knowledge, its characteristics and contradictions as well as its impact on migrant border encounters.

Andrea Wiegeshoff is a research fellow (wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin ) in modern history at Universität Marburg, Germany. Before that, she was a visiting research fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington.
  1. On the last point, see Christoph Kamissek and Jonas Kreienbaum, “An Imperial Cloud? Conceptualising Interimperial Connections and Transimperial Knowledge,” Journal of Modern European History 14, no. 2 (2016). ↩︎
  2. John V. Pickstone, Ways of Knowing: A New History of Science, Technology and Medicine (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000). ↩︎
  3. Manny Fernandez, “An American Citizen is Released from Immigration Custody After Nearly a Month,” New York Times, July 23, 2019. ↩︎
  4. Ronald T. Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, rev. ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998); Madeline Y. Hsu, The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril became the Model Minority (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Franck Billé and Sören Urbansky, ed., Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018). ↩︎
  5. File C-3273, box 69, Record Group (hereafter: RG) 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Honolulu District Office, Old Chinese Immigration Case Files, National Archives and Records Administration Pacific Region, San Francisco (hereafter: NARA Pacific Region SF). ↩︎
  6. Memorandum for the Assistant Secretary, November 23, 1914, file C-3273, folder 2, box 69, RG 85, NARA Pacific Region SF. ↩︎
  7. Ibid. ↩︎
  8. John David Smith, “Transatlantic Anthropological Dialogue and ‘the Other’: Felix von Luschan’s Research in America, 1914-1915,” in Racism in the Modern World, ed. Manfred Berg and Simon Wendt (New York: Berghahn, 2011), 141–42. ↩︎
  9. Memorandum for the Inspector in Charge in the Case of Wong Kum Wo, October 21, 1914, file C-3273, folder 2, box 69, RG 85, NARA Pacific Region SF. ↩︎
  10. Case of Wong Kum Wo, Testimony of Professor von Luschan, September 7, 1914, file C-3273, folder 2, box 69, RG 85, NARA Pacific Region SF. ↩︎
  11. Court Ruling, United States District Court for the Territory of Hawaii, November 24, 1915, file C-3273, folder 1, box 69, RG 85, NARA Pacific Region SF. ↩︎
  12. Wendy L. Rouse, “Between Two Worlds: Chinese Immigrant Children and the Production of Knowledge in the Era of Chinese Exclusion,” in “Knowledge and Young Migrants,” ed. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg,” special issue, KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 3, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 263–82, https://doi.org/10.1086/704718. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Andrea Wiegeshoff, “Clashing Ways of Knowing at the Moment of Immigration,” Migrant Knowledge, December 16, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/12/16/clashing-ways-of-knowing/.