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20 May 2020

The A-Files: a rich source of information

Guest contributor Marisa Louie Lee offers a look at the genealogical riches available in A-Files at the National Archives. NOTE: Lee will lead a webinar on "20th Century Immigration and Naturalization Records" Saturday, May 30.

The majority of Asian Pacific Americans today have family connections to the period following  the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. For decades prior to this, immigration visas had been given largely to European immigrants with only a very small quota for immigrants of Asian descent. These quotas were abolished in 1965, and visas were issued preferentially to relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents in order to reunite families. By 1980, 58.6% of Asian Pacific Americans were counted as having been born outside of the United States, an almost two-fold increase from the 1960 census.

Where, then, can historians discover more about these twentieth-century immigrants? And what about the stories of the pioneers who preceded and paved the way for their families, while living under laws and circumstances that tried to exclude them?

Since 1944, the federal government has maintained information about individual immigrants and alien residents of the United States in what are known as Alien Files, or A-Files. As of late 2019, over 1.3 million A-Files are publicly available through the National Archives at San Francisco and the National Archives at Kansas City. Currently, the A-Files in NARA’s holdings are for individuals born in 1918 and before. To search these holdings, use NARA’s online catalog.

The breadth of what can be found in an A-File is astonishing. No two A-Files are guaranteed to be alike. They can range from a single document to hundreds of pages. The extent and complexity of an A-File depends on an immigrant’s history and interactions with the federal government. The following examples give a glimpse into the diversity of these files.

Hazura Singh Mahaesar's photograph from his A-File
Hazura Singh Mahaesar was born in 1908 in Ganeshpur, Punjab State, India, and came to the United States in 1976. His two grown children had previously immigrated to the United States and were living in California.

In Mr. Mahaesar’s A-File, we discover more about his reason for coming to the United States. His wife had died not long before, and he was left with no immediate family in India. He decided to visit his adult children living in the United States, who in turn filed paperwork for him to remain with them and eventually become a permanent resident. His A-File has copies of his wife’s death certificate from India and his own teaching credential to teach Punjabi.

Vietnamese refugee Ky Thi Hong
applied for permanent residency in 1978

Ky Thi Hong was among the tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who immigrated to the United States during the Vietnam War. Born in Baclieu, Vietnam, she arrived at Camp Pendleton on April 30, 1975–the date of the fall of Saigon.

Three years after arriving in the United States, Mrs. Hong applied to become a permanent resident. Her A-File contains her Application for Status As Permanent Resident (INS Form I-485). Documents in her A-File also relate to her efforts to keep track of relatives in refugee camps in the years following.

Canuto Salaver's application for a permit to re-enter the U.S. in 1947,
for a planned trip to visit family in the Philippines

Canuto Salaver, who came to the United States from the Philippines in 1927, has an A-File that begins when he registers under the requirements of the Alien Registration Act in 1940. His A-File follows twenty years of his life, until he petitions to become a naturalized citizen in 1960. At the time of Mr. Salaver’s immigration to the United States in 1927, he was considered a United States national; this changed in 1934 when the Philippines was put on a path to independence and all Filipinos were re-classified as aliens. His A-File includes his Alien Registration Form (INS Form AR-2) from 1940, which shares that he was a musician working for a traveling band, and an Application for a Re-entry Permit in 1947 (INS Form I-131).

The A-Files are a limitless, rich source of stories about twentieth-century immigrants and the lives they built in the United States. To learn more about the A-Files maintained by the National Archives, visit the A-Files webpage on the National Archives website or read the article “The A-Files: Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors,” from the Spring 2013 issue of Prologue magazine.

 Marisa Louie Lee is a freelance researcher and workshop speaker who specializes in federal government records and Asian American history and genealogy. She previously worked for the National Archives at San Francisco and the Chinese Historical Society of America. Marisa is a proud alumna of the “Friends of Roots” program. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and their two young children, and serves on the board of her daughter's co-op preschool.

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