The US quota for Chinese immigrants used to be 100 souls per year. This was in the early fifties, soon after the fall of China to the Communists. This was when my grandparents, father and all his siblings were trying to enter and remain in the US.

It never occurred to me that our family’s American transplantation was in any way at risk or that any of their stays were subject to the roll of the quota dice. I never knew that the INS wanted to deport my grandmother back to Red China.

Entry visas

Chinese immigration cartoon
“Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose,” cartoon by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, July 23, 1870. Image source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Grandma entered the United States twice during the course of her long life. The first time, in 1915, she came as a newlywed. There was no Chinese quota at that time. There was an outright ban on all Chinese laborers seeking to enter the Gold Mountain.

My grandfather was not a laborer. He entered the US in 1911 on a student visa. My grandmother soon followed. They must have each transited via Angel Island before journeying onward to MIT. The US immigration system, then and now, is a quota system.

When I think of the word quota, I imagine an aspirational target, say, for the number of women who sit on the board of a major corporation. In the US immigration sense of the term, there is an absolute quota and a per country quota, currently set at 7%.

This is not a quota to ensure that certain nationalities make up seven percent of immigrants, but rather a limit that is set to prevent any immigrant group from dominating immigration patterns to the United States.

American Council on Immigration, Fact Sheet: How the United States Immigration System Works, 10 Oct 2019

Grandma and Grandpa were non-quota immigrants, i.e. restrictions imposed on their entry into the United States were qualitative rather than quantitative.


When China fell to the Communists in 1949, Grandma and Grandpa became refugees. They decamped first to Taiwan and later to Hong Kong in search of a new home. In 1952, Grandpa returned to Taiwan and Grandma went on to the US to live with her daughter Ruth, my Guma, in Philadelphia.

Grandma entered the US on a tourist visa. The INS subsequently extended the visa 4 times. For reasons I cannot trace, the 5th extension was denied in 1955. The INS initiated deportation proceedings. Eventually my grandmother was ordered to return to China.

Congressional Record Chinese quota proceedings

The record will show that Grandma exhausted all her administrative remedies to overturn her deportation order. By record, I mean the Congressional Records of the 84th and 85th Congress. A private bill of Congress, H.R. 7447, submitted to the 84th Congress, failed to receive a hearing. In 1956, the Honorable William A. Barrett of Pennsylvania put forth an identical bill. The purpose of H.R. 2605 was to grant my grandmother, Su-Ying Wong Kao, permanent residence in the United States on humanitarian grounds.

Facts vs fiction

For such a small woman, the file was quite thick. There was (i) her immigration file as prepared by the Philadelphia field office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, (ii) a cover note from INS Commissioner J.M. Swing to the Honorable Emanuel Celler, Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, (iii) a letter from I. Sidney Bass of the law firm of Bass & Gilderman, counsel to the beneficiary, and (iv) various speeches given by Congressman Barrett before the Judiciary Committee to plead my grandmother’s case.

On Grandma’s 90th birthday. Photo credit: Mom or Dad

The facts were not in dispute. They were also not all true.

For example, the INS claimed my grandmother was born in Wuzhou while her lawyer put the place of birth in Huzhou. My Uncle Robert claimed Wuzhen as Grandma’s home and I believed him. It is hard to transpose old Chinese proper nouns into their modern pinyin equivalents without the aid of dictionaries, maps and direct knowledge.

The INS further asserted that my grandmother had received an elementary school education in China and junior college in Ohio. My father told me that Grandma was illiterate in Chinese and the college she attended while Grandpa worked was a finishing school.

But this was, of course, all beside the point.

The bill would grant the beneficiary permanent residence in the United States upon payment of the required visa fee. The bill also directs the deduction of one number from the appropriate immigration quota.
The beneficiary is chargeable to the quota of the Chinese.

Letter of INS Commissioner J.M. Swing to the Honorable Emanuel Celler, 6 Dec 1955

First preference quota

Grandpa kept his children apprised of Grandma’s predicament with letters, newspaper clippings and his own views on the workings of the US government.

Mother’s lawyer at Philadelphia wrote saying that the House Committee on the Judiciary had favorably considered the bill introduced on Mother’s behalf, and had incorporated it in House Joint Resolution 338 which is pending on House Private Calendar. Passage by the House, he says, is virtually certain, and then the Bill must be presented to the Senate, which usually goes along with the House.

Letter of Ta-Kang Kao to Donald Kao, 11 June 1957

Dad and his younger brother Victor were both waiting their turn in the US quota system. Apparently, Dad had his own private bill of Congress in the works.

My case with the Immigration Office has been cleared. I was granted first preference quota immigrant. But since the Chinese quota is all filled, I’ll have to wait till the year there is such an opening.

Letter of Donald Kao to Ta-Kang Kao and Su-Ying Wong Kao, 23 May 1957

In November 1957, the INS granted Grandma permanent resident status. Did the INS suddenly expand its 100 person quota or did they unceremoniously boot someone from the list? Perhaps it was this assertion by Congressman William A. Barrett that did the trick.

The members of the Kao family are highly respected by the citizens of their communities and are decent, law-abiding people.