As of the 1892 passage of the Geary Act, which extended the decade-old Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants living in the United States were required to carry identification papers at all times. Here are four examples of such papers, carried by men who worked as laborers and farmers in California; they are part of a larger Flickr group of documents issued between 1894 and 1897, and held by the California Historical Society.
Writing about the section of the Geary Act that mandated the carrying of papers, historian Jean Pfaelzer points out that the “humiliating provision called for two white witnesses to testify to a Chinese person’s immigration status” in order for the immigrant to receive a certificate. “It was the first time,” she added, “that illegal immigration became a federal crime punishable by a year’s imprisonment with hard labor.”
The Chinese community reacted negatively to the new law, protesting through civil disobedience and putting pressure on the Chinese legation in Washington to intervene. Pfaelzer quotes Qing Ow Yang, the Chinese vice consul in San Francisco, who wrote to the government:
Do you know what the Geary bill means to the laboring Chinese in this country? It means, sir, that they are placed on the level with your dogs. If you have a dog, a black and tan, a Llewellyn setter, a pointer, you buy a license tag for it and fasten it to the dog’s collar, and the number in the dog’s tag is its immunity for arrest by the poundman. Under the Geary bill the laboring Chinese carry their number in their pocket and any man who so desires may stop them and demand to see their “tag”…
Protestors took their petition to overturn the act to the Supreme Court, where the law was upheld, 5-3. The Chinese Exclusion Act and other restrictions aimed at Chinese immigrants remained in force until World War II.