Prior to the creation of the Alien files (A-files) in 1944, which documented every step of an immigrant’s journey from their initial entry to naturalization, each immigration office developed their own highly complex filing system. The numerous file numbers illustrated how immigration officials refined their documentation on the enforcement of the exclusion laws – first targeting Chinese immigration and later expanding to other “undesirable” immigrants. Case files documented who was allowed or denied entry, to confirm citizenship and other exempt status, and to enforce deportation.
Records from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) office in Honolulu highlight this ever-evolving filing system. By the time the INS set up an office in Hawai’i in 1905, an Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant community was well-established and continued to grow due to recruitment for large-scale plantation work. With incrementally more restrictive immigration policies enacted, a records-keeping system developed that tracked the arrival and departure of individuals based on their immigration or citizenship status and country of origin.
The Honolulu office initially created a single filing system, the “Chinese Case Files” or “C-Files” (NAID 594779), to document Chinese families. This included family members who immigrated under various exempt statuses as well as their Hawaiian-born children. Soon after, by the mid-1910s, the office created individual files for admission or re-entry for Chinese immigrants. The following are just a few examples of the assigned prefix case numbers (in parentheses):
- Admission as Students, Teachers, and Clergy (4379) (NAID 628297)
- Return Application for Chinese Laborers (4380) (NAID 628298)
- Return Application for Merchants (4381) (NAID 628299)
While early exclusionary laws staunchly limited migration for individuals of Chinese descent (policies already implemented in Hawai’i before U.S. annexation in 1898**), concerns soon grew over what INS officials deemed as the “Japanese invasion.” In Executive Order 589, President Roosevelt affirmed the 1907 ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, restricting laborers from Japan and their colonized subjects in Korea. This led to additional Honolulu INS case files created for arrivals from these countries:
- Appeal Case files for Japanese and Korean Aliens (4395) (NAID 628461)
- Admission as US Citizens of Non-Chinese Descent (4368) (NAID 628295)
- Board of Special Inquiry Case Files (NAID 2912190)
The INS office not only documented individuals arriving in Honolulu, but also those leaving the territory to foreign ports and to the U.S. mainland. Immigration laws added notable scrutiny on those of Asian descent, which prolonged processing at U.S. ports. For U.S. citizens, obtaining documentation to return to the Hawaiian Islands - and especially to enter the mainland - was indispensable. To facilitate the process, the Honolulu office issued certificates that affirmed the holder’s American citizenship. For a brief period from 1908 to 1909, the INS issued green certificates of identity to Chinese Americans who were born in Hawai’i or naturalized by the Hawaiian government prior to annexation - and for their wives (Index, NAID 1560815; most but not all of the certificates are digitized on FamilySearch.org). These green certificates served as the precursor to the nationwide red certificates issued to both Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans at every U.S. port (NAID 1560125).
Hawaiian Certificate of Identity for Kau Tong. The first certificates numbered 2 to 7 were issued to Kau Tong and his family (certificate 1 was a sample). Tong served as an INS Chinese interpreter who had previously naturalized under the Kingdom of Hawai’i.
After the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act (NAID 5752154) further limited Asian immigration, Certificates of Citizenship - Hawaiian Islands (NAID 1565934) were issued to residents of Hawai’i who wished to depart temporarily from the Territory. Though each applicant used the same form, the applications were filed in separate case files, sometimes according to their ethnicity and include (but not limited to) the following:
- Japanese and Chinese Americans (4333) (NAID 628294)
- Japanese Americans (4368) (NAID 628295)
- Chinese Americans (4500) (NAID 628463)
- Filipino Americans (4800-A) (NAID 628477)
- These certificates were issued after the Philippine Independence Act of March 24, 1934 reclassified Filipino immigrants as aliens and limited migration to the U.S. mainland. The 1934 act made exemptions for Filipinos entering the Territory of Hawai’i. All of these applications relate to Hawaiian born children.
Certificates of Citizenship--Hawaiian Islands for Kaneyo Kokubun and Harmony Claudette Cowart. Initially, the Honolulu office issued two different sets of certificates, with one specifically used for those visiting the U.S. and the other for those traveling elsewhere. Soon after, the INS stopped issuing the U.S. specific-one and solely used the generic certificate.
From 1944 to 1954
By 1944, even as Alien case files were being created, each INS office continued to maintain their own records-keeping system until the mid-1950s. By this time, the INS developed a uniform system for all Districts to eliminate confusion when files were loaned between Districts (which happened quite often). File numbers for this period are composed of the district and office number, followed by the individual case number.
Because the Honolulu Office was part of the San Francisco District (District 13) from 1944 to 1949, the assigned prefix number became 1302, for “District 13" from the Honolulu sub-office "02". By April 1949, the office was assigned its own headquarters of District 17. Post-war case files are part of series “Immigration and Deportation Investigation Case Files” (1302 and 1700) (NAID 628483).
The above are just a sampling of some of the file numbers for records that have survived and are held at the National Archives (NARA) at San Francisco. You may access the complete list of series from the Honolulu INS Office on the National Archives Catalog.
How to determine file numbers
If you cannot locate an individual from the catalog, NARA staff can conduct a search in the “Index to Immigration Investigation Case Files” (NAID: 2902860), which is only available onsite. When contacting our staff, please provide the following:
- Name of the individual (including all name variants). What is most helpful here is how the name would have been written by immigration authorities and on other legal documents.
- Date of birth (specific or approximate)
- Date of entry. This may be helpful in locating a manifest which might lead to a file number (see below).
- Names of family members and their dates of birth. If we cannot locate your specific individual, we may be able to locate an associated file that may offer clues. Cross-reference sheets are a great way to identify additional files of family members and even witnesses (friends, business associates and other individuals accompanying on trips).
For do-it-yourself genealogists, file numbers may also be found on passenger manifests commonly recorded under the Visa column and may also be found handwritten near the individual’s name.
A manifest page for those arriving at the port of Honolulu on July 1, 1937. While locating a file number on a passenger list is useful - as seen on this page filled with them - unfortunately, not all files have been transferred to NARA or they may have been consolidated into a later INS file. From this page, NARA-SF only has file 4333/3968 for Haruko Sugita.
In the end, if staff cannot locate a Honolulu immigration file, these records may have been consolidated into the all-encompassing A-files that document nearly every immigrant since 1944. (Yes, we’ve come full circle).
** Note about pre-annexation immigration records
While the Kingdom of Hawai’i restricted Chinese immigration about a year after the 1882 Act, the Kingdom continued to naturalize individuals of Chinese descent. After the overthrow of the monarchy, from 1893 until annexation in 1898, the Republic of Hawai’i continued immigration restrictions while also making all non-white immigrants ineligible to naturalize. Interestingly, they did not strip citizenship from those who already were Hawaiian subjects. The Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900 conferred U.S. citizenship to those who had been citizens just prior to 1898, including naturalized Hawaiian subjects of Chinese descent (hence the green Hawaiian certificates of identity).
Records related to the Chinese Bureau (the office preceding the Honolulu INS office) are held by the Hawai’i State Archives with some digitized documents available on Family Search and Ancestry.
- Records of the Chinese Bureau – Hawai’i State Archives finding aid
- Naturalization records for the Hawaiian Kingdom – Digital images on Family Search
- Chinese Laborer Permit Records – Digital Images on Family Search
- Certificates of Identification for Chinese Arrivals – Digital images on Ancestry