Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.
Among the more popular genealogical-type records among the files of the Department of State are those relating to visas. Except for a brief time during the American Civil War (1861-1865), alien visitors did not require visaed passports in order to enter the United States. The practice of requiring all aliens to obtain visas from U.S. officials abroad before departure for the United States began in 1917 as a war measure during World War I. That procedure was continued under an act of May 22, 1918 (40 Stat. 559), amended in 1921 (41 Stat. 1217). U.S. consuls were directed to refuse visas to aliens whose entrance might threaten the public safety and were required to warn applicants for visas who were liable to be legally excluded from the United States upon their arrival at ports of entry. Under the Immigration Act of 1924, which continued the quota system for immigrants to the United States established in 1921, consuls were responsible for denying visas to applicants inadmissible under that system.
Visa activities in the Department of State were at first handled by the Visa Office, established as part of the Division of Passport Control by a departmental order in August 1918. In November 1919, a subsequent departmental order made the Visa Office a separate unit; 11 years later, under another order, the Visa Office became the Visa Division. In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act, established in the Department of State the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs and raised the Visa Division to the status of an Office within that Bureau.
Records of headquarters-level visa operations are found in RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. Certain file categories in the Department’s central files were assigned for use by the visa organization but the records were kept separate from the main series of the Department’s central files. Recordkeeping for files relating to visa matters now in the National Archives falls into three main periods of time:
- 1910 through 1949:
- Central Decimal File category “150” (with sub-divisions) dealt with “Immigration to the United States” and file category “151” (with sub-divisions) covered “Immigration of Chinese to the United States.”
- Records relating to “Regulations governing residence, trade, and travel” to the United States were filed in file category “811.111” and records relating to individuals were filed under “811.111-[name]”.
- 1950 to 1962: Central Decimal File categories “150” through “165” dealt with broad subject of “Entry of aliens into, residence of aliens in, the United States.” Records relating to individuals were filed under “150-[name]”.
- Beginning in 1963: The Department began using an alpha-numeric filing scheme for its central files. Under the new filing system, records relating to “Visas” were filed in the file category “V.” There were sub-divisions, such as “V-1” for “General policy. Plans. Coordination” and “V-12” for “Entry.”
(Refer to the filing manuals for each time period for more detail on the organization of the records described above).
The most important records are described below. See Inventory 15: Inventory of the General Records of the Department of State: Record Group 59 for information on other visa records. The section of the inventory including the description of visa records is here.
Records Relating to Individuals
Files on individual applicants are in file category “811.111-[Name]”. Those records are arranged in the following three chronological segments: 1914-1923 Boxes 1-445; 1924-1932. Boxes 446-906; and 1933-1940 Boxes 907-1736. This is the only period for which Department of State case files on individuals exist. Furthermore, for the 1914-23 and 1924-32 blocks, only precedent cases, files containing policy documentation, and cases on significant individuals are preserved. See the section “Records of Other Agencies” for information about alternative sources of documentation on individuals.
Policy and Procedural Records
Most of the preserved visa-related records consist of policy and procedural documentation. Those files are arranged according to the file numbers assigned during the period of time each filing system described above was used.
The Department of State created finding aids for some of the visa records.
Records of Other Agencies
Immigrant visas, both quota and nonquota (and supporting documentation), issued by the Department of State to aliens at U.S. embassies, legations, and consulates overseas are surrendered by the carrier to U.S. immigration officials upon admission to the United States. The immigrant visas and associated documentation accumulated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service between July 1, 1924, and March 31, 1944, were maintained by the central office in Washington, DC in the Visa Files. Subsequent immigrant visas were filed in the Alien Files (“A-Files”) or the Certificate Files (“C-Files”). Those records are preserved but remain in the custody of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). For more information on the different types of files and how to request access to them, please see that agency’s History and Genealogy website.