Edward Bing Kan: The First Chinese-American Naturalized after Repeal of Chinese Exclusion

On December 17, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law an Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts.[i] This repeal law overturned previous laws that had excluded the vast majority of Chinese immigrants since 1882. It also provided for a new annual quota of 105 Chinese immigrants. Additionally, the law added “Chinese persons or persons of Chinese descent" to the categories of individuals eligible for naturalization.[ii] For the first time, any qualified lawfully admitted Chinese immigrant could become a naturalized U.S. citizen.[iii]

On January 18, 1944, one month and one day after the new law went into effect, Edward Bing Kan swore the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance in the U.S. District Court at Chicago, becoming the first Chinese-American to naturalize after repeal of Chinese Exclusion.[iv] Kan’s status as the first to naturalize was not the result of chance—for 35 years he had served as an interpreter in the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) Chicago office.

Kan, the son of a vegetable peddler, entered the U.S. as a student in 1892 at age 13 under his original name, Kan Kwong Bing.[v]He settled in Portland, Oregon and in 1900 married Katherine Wong, a U.S. born citizen of Chinese descent. Under some interpretations of U.S. nationality law at that time Edward’s noncitizen status effectively divested Katherine of her U.S. citizenship upon marriage.[vi]Edward’s status as an “alien ineligible for citizenship” prevented him from naturalizing, leaving Katherine’s citizenship status in doubt.

In 1909, Edward and Katherine moved to Chicago where Edward began his tenure as a Chinese translator for the Immigration Service. He held the position for more than 35 years. During that time he likely “witnessed the granting of citizenship to thousands,” as one report of his naturalization noted.[vii]  Though denied access to naturalization some evidence suggests that Kan remained committed to the ideal of American citizenship. For example, he and Katherine provided presentations on “the Chinese in America,” to the Chicago Woman’s City Club Citizenship Class—events which included Katherine preparing traditional Chinese dishes.[viii] When Kan finally had the opportunity to naturalize one of his INS supervisors noted that he had always “expressed a keen desire for American citizenship.”[ix]

Kan’s position at the INS undoubtedly accelerated his journey to citizenship.  As the repeal act worked its way through Congress he followed its progress closely and he filed his naturalization application the day after the president signed the repeal into law. It is unlikely that someone less familiar, or less comfortable, with INS employees and procedures would have taken such immediate action.

However, the fact that Kan could apply and naturalize in just 30 days was also due to his ability to naturalize under special provisions for spouses of U.S. citizens. Just over three years earlier, Katherine Wong Kan had sworn the Oath of Allegiance at the U.S. District Court in Chicago, affirming her status as a U.S. citizen.

Beginning in 1922, a series of laws allowed most women who had lost, or believed they had lost, their U.S. citizenship through marriage to regain it, first by naturalization and then through an expedited repatriation process.[x] Because Katherine remained married to Edward she did not qualify under these laws until 1940 when Congress finally allowed all women who had lost their citizenship through marriage to repatriate.[xi]  Katherine repatriated on December 10, 1940.[xii]

Katherine’s reaffirmed citizenship status allowed Edward to apply for Naturalization as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. This meant he could skip the Declaration of Intention (or “first papers”), as well as the associated two year waiting period, and file his Petition for Naturalization directly.[xiii] He did so on the first day possible and became a U.S. citizen a mere 30 days later.

The law required at least 30 days to pass between the date a petition was filed and the date the petitioner received a hearing.[xiv] The fact that Kan received his hearing on the first day possible suggests his colleagues at INS and the U.S. District Court expedited his application to ensure he would be admitted as soon as possible. The fact that Edward’s petition has a much higher number than those of other petitioners sworn in on January 18, 1944 also indicates that his co-workers may have moved his petition forward to minimize his wait. Perhaps they believed that 40+ years had been long enough.

In the months immediately following the repeal of Chinese Exclusion INS received around 500 applications for naturalization from Chinese immigrants.[xv] In 1945, 739 Chinese immigrants became U.S. citizens.[xvi] Congress did not remove all racial restrictions on naturalization until it passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. [xvii]



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