The Past is the Present in the Asian American/Pacific Islander Records Aggregation Project

Today’s post is by Leah Booth and John Marden, Archives Technicians at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

As part of the Asian American/Pacific Islander Records Aggregation Project at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) we are working to assess our holdings of records and materials relevant to the Asian American and Pacific Islands (AAPI) experience. We surveyed NARA’s social media to determine how our records were being promoted and what records were being showcased. We have come across many fascinating records within NARA’s holdings from all of our facilities, among them, the story of Bhagat Singh Thind. What made this story stand out to us is that it mirrors the modern-day experience of many immigrants who have served their newly adopted country, only to return from service and be denied the rights and privileges awarded to white veterans.

Bhagat Singh Thind immigrated to the United States in 1913 to study at an American university. At the time of his arrival, only “free white men” and “persons of African nativity or persons of African descent” could be naturalized. However, “Caucasian,” a word derived from false “race science,” was used as a synonym for “white,” and a small number of Indians (who were categorized as Caucasians by the US government) in various states were granted citizenship on those grounds.

From July 22nd-December 16th, 1918, Thind served in the United States Army, advancing to the rank of Acting Sergeant on November 8th, 1918. Upon release from the army, Thind’s character was designated as “excellent.” On December 9, 1918, just before his release, Singh Thind received his first citizenship certificate, only to have it revoked on the grounds that he was not a “white man,” as defined by the 1790 Naturalization Act. Thind was granted citizenship a second time, this time through the state of Oregon, on November 8th, 1920. At this time, the Bureau of Naturalization appealed the decision to grant Thind citizenship, and in 1926 the Bureau of Naturalization issued a certificate revoking his citizenship a second time with this Bill of Complaint, 1/7/1921 (NAID 2641495) from “U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind” (Civil, Criminal, and Admiralty Case Files, 1859 – 1923. Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States). (See U.S. Reports: United States v. Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) for more reference material on this topic).

Bill of Complaint, Bhagat Singh Thind
Bill of Complaint, Bhagat Singh Thind 1/7/1921.

Thind petitioned for citizenship a third time in the state of New York in 1935, when Congress passed the 1935 Alien Veteran Naturalization Act, which granted citizenship to World War I veterans regardless of race. He was finally granted citizenship that year.

Following WWI, Singh Thind studied at the University of California, Berkeley and at Columbia University in New York, eventually earning a Ph.D. as a Doctor of Divinity and Metaphysics. For 52 years, Thind lectured throughout the United States.

Immigrants who volunteer for the United States Armed Forces are frequently offered an expedited path to citizenship, but many do not complete it. Some veterans do not fully understand or are unable to complete requirements while in a war zone, while some are provided incorrect information. We learned of several recent cases, in particular the case of Jiji Kurian, a 45-year-old immigrant and a veteran of the Illinois National Guard. He arrived in the United States at the age of 9, and after developing a substance abuse problem, was deported to India in 2012.

“‘I feel lost here,’ Kurian said. ‘I’m married, and I have kids. That’s it. I have no friends. I have no social life. I can’t talk to anyone. Everything that I had before I don’t have. I can’t get used to how they do things here.’” (“Deported U.S. Veterans Feel Abandoned By The Country They Defended,” NPR, June 21, 2019).

This is just one example of an ongoing problem. We discovered cases from Vietnam, Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Those case files accessioned to NARA can be found in the series Deportations Files, 7/1974 – 9/1993 (NAID 611223), from Record Group 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They are electronic records containing personal privacy information. To obtain access, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request must be submitted to determine what can be released to the public.

The focus of our project is to bring NARA’s AAPI records forward, helping to support underrepresented communities and shed light on underlying issues. The situations we discovered have gone on throughout our nation’s history and continue today. Bhagat Singh Thind and Jiji Kurian are both of Southeast Asian/Indian descent, and discovering their stories helps show that the AAPI community has always been an integral part of American history and society. By showcasing these records, maybe we can help change things for the better for more underrepresented communities.

2 thoughts on “The Past is the Present in the Asian American/Pacific Islander Records Aggregation Project

  1. Hi, how can researchers find out more or contribute to the Asian American/Pacific Islander Records Aggregation Project at NARA?

  2. Hi Marisa and thank you so much for the question.

    That is exactly what our project is attempting to do. We are working to gather as many access points for Asian American/Pacific Islander Records here at NARA as we can. Part of the endeavor is to locate which facilities have them and to create a portal that first, our staff can utilize to help researchers locate them, then, as it grows, a web portal that will allow researchers direct access to the locations’ finding aids.

    Right now, we are working internally with the Archival staff around the country to locate, identify and include in our dataset all the AAPI records currently available. It is a broad spectrum and only a first step.

    We would love to be made aware of any AAPI content discovered by our researchers. If you come across any AAPI records in your research, please let us know through the consulting archivist.

    Thank you again!
    John and Leah

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