Genealogy Research Just Got a Whole Lot Easier -- and Closer

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

43,000 new case files now call the National Archives in San Bruno home -- and one might hold the key to your family's history.

The Alien Files (A-Files) have just arrived from the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) offices in San Francisco, Honolulu, Reno, and Guam, with over 100 different countries of origin represented. The files are full of an exciting mix of materials, including INS interrogation transcripts, "coaching maps" of homeland villages in China, personal letters, family photographs, and marriage certificates.

The A-Files enable viewers to construct personal narratives, enriching our understanding of major historical movements, including the first landing stories of "paper sons" during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1942), Japanese "picture brides," and war refugees across the globe, from Eastern Europe to Africa. In addition to immigrant, non-citizen aliens, the records contain information on individuals who were considered "stateless" because of geopolitical changes. Files on American-born citizens can also be found in the A-Files, particularly those of Chinese descent. The INS watched them carefully, often keeping records of their domestic whereabouts and international travels.

While subscription-based online genealogical websites certainly prove to be a convenient and expedient tool during the most nascent stages of research, it is important to remember that most sites have inherent limitations -- and often cull from free, underused public archives. Many resources simply cannot be fully digitized. On a practical level, there is too much information to wade through, and too few people to do it. Privacy is also a factor; digitization en masse would preclude careful screening.

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A document from Pasha Semenov's file, recently acquired by the National Archives in San Bruno.
The Bay Area's recent acquisition of the A-Files took 14 years to achieve. Save Our National Archives (SONA), a coalition of over 30 nonprofit groups and individuals, launched a massive community effort. Over 200 people -- half of which numbered residents of the Bay Area -- successfully blocked the transfer of these local archives to a centralized storage facility. SONA steadfastly negotiated with four Presidential administrations, navigating labyrinthine legal and governmental procedures -- not to mention the constant bureaucratic run-around.

SONA was ultimately successful with the help of the community, but also benefited from the crucial support of two key Congressional leaders: Representatives Tom Lantos (1928-2008) and Jackie Speier. A survivor of the Holocaust, Lantos' own A-Files can be found in the archives.

"We hope researchers will find the A-Files to be a 'one-stop-shop' for immigration and naturalization-related genealogical information," archivist Marisa Louie explained.

There is a misconception that archives are only available to those holding higher degrees or working in related fields. In truth, any motivated individual can physically visit the National Archives in San Bruno by appointment. The A-Files index has already been uploaded onto the National Archives' Archival Research Catalog. To get started at home, type in the search term "alien case file" and the name of the person you are looking for. There are guidelines posted, and helpful archivists standing by to help. If nothing comes up, contact the National Archives, though an error might not be the problem: A-Files are only available 100 years after the birth date of the person of interest.

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"Picture Bride." During the early 20th century, immigrant workers on the West Coast used a matchmaker to find brides in their native countries. Photographs were sent of potential candidates to the United States.

Louie herself was once an archival neophyte. A decade ago, she spent summer vacations researching her own family history at the National Archives. Scouring immigration records inspired her to pursue a career in public history. Having come full circle as an employee at the very archives she once visited, Louie thoroughly enjoys assisting others in their ancestral inquiries.

"I hope that other young people discover more about their roots in our records. Those who see themselves and their families as 'making history' might be more engaged as American citizens," Louie muses. While she has to wait another 18 years for her maternal grandparent's records to arrive in San Francisco, Louie is eager to help you find your family's A-Files now.

A-Files may be viewed in person by appointment, or order copies to be delivered directly to you. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is open on weekdays, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. NARA is located at 1000 Commodore Drive in San Bruno. Call (650) 238-3501 for more information.

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