Webster Wilkinson and Chinese Immigration Law of the 1920s & 30s

August 14, 2018
Franz Kunst
Wilkinson letter

This is a guest post from project archivist Alyssa Tou.

The Webster Wilkinson Immigration Legal Archive (M1973) provides a very interesting perspective of the last two decades of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Wilkinson was a lawyer active from 1920 to 1940 in San Francisco, and his primary clients came from the Chinese community, those seeking to enter or leave the country. There are a small number of case files for non-Chinese travelers as well, and some of the Korean files provide a glimpse into the tensions and relationships between international governments. This collection could be a useful resource for Chinese Americans researching family histories. Further, because the primary viewpoint is from a legal standpoint, there is an opportunity to learn more about the machinery of the government and the intricacies of immigration law. And especially in light of recent conflicts and awareness of immigration, it is compelling to take a look at the procedures that existed 80 to 100 years ago, as well as the experiences of both the immigrants themselves and the lawyers who facilitated the process.

The letters below between Wilkinson and the Ambassador of the Republic of Mexico note that “in common with all other Koreans residing in the United States, these gentlemen dislike to recognize the sovereignty of Japan by applying to the Consul General of that country for a passport.” The certificate they received instead, while accepted by Peru and Panama, was rejected by Mexico because of the diplomatic relations between the latter and Japan.

Wilkinson letter2

Wilkinson letter1


Wilkinson’s correspondence with fellow lawyers, especially Roger O’Donnell and his son, Lambert, give a lot of insight into how the INS worked, and what sort of methods would have been used in order to gain a favorable ruling for an applicant, and what sort of barriers and difficulties they might face. There are over 1300 pages of typed correspondence between Webster Wilkinson and Roger O’Donnell. Some are routine; for example, notices of payments. Many, like the one below, are in-depth discussions on such topics as case situations, prognoses, evaluations of the hearing, and strategies. Letters may also express a belief that a case is worth taking because the relationship seems to be sound, or exasperation at a witness’s bad testimony with plans on how to salvage the situation.

Wilkinson letter3

 The page below is one part of the lawyer’s argument to explain why there were certain discrepancies in the testimony of the applicant. Looking at the level of detail involved as to the location of the school, one gets the feeling that this is all a very involved, study-intensive test, the end result being either entry into America or deportation. The outcome leans on how well applicants, witnesses, and relatives (real or not) can make their testimony match up and how favorably officials saw them. It was also about how well discrepancies and irregularities in the arguments of the INS could be dissected and how well applicant and supporting testimonies could be patched together and rationalized. 

Wilkinson letter4

 One interesting interaction between Wilkinson and a client happened in 1940, when Leong Tuck Shing wrote a letter informing the lawyer of a visit to his workplace by the immigration inspector and the resulting questions about his “status of entering this country,” apparently taking him into the office of the chief of Police of the city of Modesto to ask them. This summons up all sorts of imagery about the worries of people today concerning detainment and interrogation.

Wilkinson letter5

Wilkinson letter6

 These are of course only a brief moment in the lives of immigrants, visitors, and travelers. One might continue to wonder where they all ended up after passing through the case files of Webster Wilkinson, but that is beyond the purview of this collection.