This article analyzes denaturalization proceedings that the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles initiated against five South Asian men in the Los Angeles area in the weeks following the US Supreme Court decision in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. The author argues that Thind created an opportunity for bureaucrats in the US government to denaturalize other US citizens of South Asian descent by holding them accountable to legal constructions of race that had not been in place at the time of their naturalization. Post-Thind, the government argued that these naturalized citizens were not White and never had been, despite American judges having signed their naturalization petitions in the years prior to Thind. By retroactively holding these five South Asian men accountable to constructions of race that had not been in place at the time of their naturalization, the courts, attorneys, and naturalization agents gave the new, post-Thind definitions of whiteness the appearance of permanence and stability. The inherent flexibility of casting race backward across time while arguing that it had always been constructed thusly meant that the five naturalized citizens had broken the law in obtaining their citizenship.
In the weeks following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (Thind), the case that established that South Asians are not White and therefore not eligible for US citizenship, the Bureau of Naturalization (within the Department of Labor) moved quickly to initiate denaturalization proceedings against other South Asians who had already been naturalized in the years preceding the case. Five such South Asians—Shiv Ram, Ganga Singh, Deir Chand, Mohan Singh, and Sakharam Ganesh Pandit—lived and worked in the greater Los Angeles area. Four held working-class positions, while one, Pandit, was the only Hindu lawyer within the United States according to his own business cards. These men were brought together by a legal construction of race imposed upon them by the Bureau of Naturalization. Their denaturalization cases illustrate the unappreciated meaning of the Thind ruling, both for the South Asians facing its consequences and the legal institutions of white supremacy evolving in the face of changing constructions of whiteness in the US. These five denaturalization cases brought in the wake of Thind clarify the race-making processes brought to bear by the bureaucrats charged with constructing and enforcing the United States border in a moment of rising xenophobia and eugenicist practices, and the people whose lives were shaped by racial logics they could not control.
All five South Asian men were naturalized between 1913 and 1918. While two of their applications indicate that they had applied previously only to be denied on the grounds that they were not free White persons, eventually all five were granted citizenship. Stripping naturalization from people to whom it had been previously granted due to a change in federal law years after their naturalization does more than indicate the flexibility of race. Thind clarified the border as a legal infrastructure rather than simply a physical geographic one, and allowed the US Attorney’s Office to apply laws in a way that superseded situationally specific elements that otherwise would have been part of determining racial identity.
This article examines denaturalization cases brought against these South Asian men after Thind to understand how the case redefined whiteness in the naturalization infrastructure. In the process of prosecuting these cases, the US Attorney’s Office clarified provisions of Section 2169 of the Revised Statutes of 1875, which followed the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and identified only White people and Black formerly enslaved people and their descendants born in the United States as eligible for citizenship. That these denaturalization cases were triggered by the application of Section 2169 through the decision in Thind, indicates that the production of racial identities of immigrants from South Asia relies upon a reading of the law that artificially positions racial definitions as constant. Individuals operating within the US legal institutions governing race and immigration in the immediate aftermath of Thind used their own arbitrary understanding of whiteness to strengthen the power of exclusion. The outcomes in these cases made racial hierarchies appear natural and perpetual, eliding that they substantially realigned definitions of whiteness and identities of those who fell outside its bounds. In this way, the rulings reveal how continuously reimagined understandings of race could be projected backward to fix racial meaning across time and maintain the centrality of whiteness—however it might be construed in the future. The infrastructures tasked with upholding and interpreting immigration law stretched a new interpretation of race backward, making new illegalities out of old, previously sanctioned, actions. That the United States court system could revoke the denaturalization petitions of US citizens of South Asian descent indicates that it is exactly the flexibility of race that makes it seem fixed and constant across time. The flexibility is the stability. Race appears fixed and natural by its constantly changing definitions, pushing people out of whiteness as though they never belonged to begin with.
This article draws on work by Mae Ngai and the historiographical tradition that followed the formulation of the “impossible subject,” a problem that the US state creates for itself that cannot be solved by design, as a means of understanding race-making and immigration law.1 Under Ngai’s framework, South Asian naturalized citizens in a post-Thind world were a version of the “impossible subject,” suspended such that they were beholden to definitions of whiteness shifting around them. Similarly, as argued by Ian Haney López in White by Law, categories used by courts to define race were utilized arbitrarily, and this article expands upon that framework by investigating how that arbitrary quality allowed for the strengthening of categorizations of whiteness.2 Other works in the field of whiteness studies argue that the US border, including its infrastructural manifestations such as ports and naturalization courts, serve as a sort of proving ground for whiteness and as the exercises of power that define whiteness by exclusion rather than inclusion.3 That is to say, state power (and the power of the members of society that uphold and are upheld by the state) defines people out of whiteness, rather than expanding the criteria for whiteness so that more people can take up the identity.
Shiv Ram was twenty-five years old when he filed his petition for naturalization with the Federal District Court for the Southern District of California, Southern Division. He was born in Fatepur Kodi in British India and was at the time of his naturalization unmarried with no children, and listed his occupation as “gardener.”4 In his petition, it is noted that he had petitioned for naturalization once before, in 1917, and was denied because he was “declared not to be a white person, and the cause of such denial has since been cured or removed.”5 It is unclear how exactly this issue had been “cured or removed,” but the fact that he applied for a second time indicates an understanding on his part that race was not a permanent barrier. That he encountered a different outcome on his second application also speaks to the instability of race as a metric in determining eligibility for citizenship.
Ganga Singh was forty-one years old and had left his wife Bhani in India when he relocated to Sawtelle, California, by way of Vancouver, British Columbia. He listed his occupation as “laborer,” and he too had applied for citizenship once before in 1918, through the Superior Court of Inyo County, California. He had also been denied, but for being unable to prove the duration of his domicile in the United States at the time. In different places in his petition for naturalization his residence is listed in Sawtelle, an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, and La Cañada, a small town in the San Gabriel Valley.6
Deir Chand—also noted in his case file as Devi Chand, Devi Singh, and Deva Singh—relocated to Van Nuys, California, also by way of Vancouver, British Columbia. He had never made a petition for citizenship prior to the one at issue. He was unmarried and had been honorably discharged from the US Army in December 1918 with the rank of Private First Class. His listed address is the same as Ganga Singh’s: R. F. D. No. 1, in Sawtelle.7 He listed his occupation as a “gardener and farmer by training,” and stated in his Answer to the Government’s Petition for the Cancellation of Naturalization that he applied for farm and home aid under the Veteran’s Farm and Home Purchase Act.8 Under the Alien Land Laws in place at the time, he would lose any real property he owned in the United States if he were to be denaturalized.9
Mohan Singh, at twenty-nine years old, listed his occupation as “butler.” He was born in Humelpura, India, and first filed a declaration of intent to seek naturalization in the Superior Court for Cook County, Illinois.10 When he moved to California, he took up residence in Los Angeles, and was unmarried with no children. He had never filed a petition for naturalization other than the one at issue. His attorney was Sakharam Ganesh Pandit.11
Pandit himself, who had been born in Ahmedabad, India, was thirty-eight years old when he filed his petition for naturalization in the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Illinois.12 It is possible that he was acquainted with Mohan Singh even then, as they were both present in the greater Chicago area at the same time. He listed his occupation as “teacher and lecturer,” as he would not be admitted to the California bar for another four years.13 He acted as his own counsel, with help from two other attorneys, and eventually his and Mohan Singh’s denaturalization cases were merged.14 He was the only one of the five men who retained his naturalization at the conclusion of his case.
The Legal Landscape in the Age of Thind
In 1917, six years before the Supreme Court would publish its decision in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, the 64th US Congress passed an immigration act which was fully titled, “An act to regulate the immigration of aliens to, and the residence of aliens in, the United States,” overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. The first few sections of the Immigration Act of 1917 (1917 Act) require that new immigrants pass a literacy test in their native language. The language of the statute itself bars those with so-called moral or intellectual defects, collapsed into the same category, from entering the country. Language used includes such terms as “feebleminded persons,” “political radicals,” and “prostitutes.” The fourth and final section of the Act especially deserves our attention here. The 1917 Act used latitude and longitude markers to create an “Asiatic Barred Zone” that disallowed entry into the United States for persons from the area identified in the law as “Asia.”15 The Asiatic Barred Zone included spaces from what is now Oman to what is now China:
[U]nless otherwise provided for by existing treaties, persons who are natives of islands not possessed by the United States adjacent to the continent of Asia, […] and no alien now in any way excluded from, or prevented from entering, the United States shall be admitted to the United States.16
The Philippines was not included, given its status as a colony of the United States, nor was Japan, due to the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 wherein the United States agreed to not restrict immigration from Japan if Japan would discourage emigration to the United States.17
Even though the law does not take up the question of naturalization at all, it is still heavily cited in the US Attorney’s Office filings in Thind, and in the filings of the denaturalization cases discussed below. The reason, per the citations, is that the 1917 Act defined India as part of the Asiatic Barred Zone, and therefore made all people from Asia neither White nor Black, and thus not of the two groups that could be naturalized. Federal actors including District Court Judges, Appellate Court Justices, and the Justices of the United States Supreme Court, used the 1917 Act to adjust the meaning of “free white persons” in Section 2169 of the Revised Statutes, which provides that the provisions of the Naturalization Act “shall apply to aliens, being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” The 1917 Act, despite having nothing to do with the naturalization process on its face, offered the foundation for reinterpreting Section 2169 based on legal constructions of race that had not existed in 1790 or when the men themselves were naturalized.
All five of the petitioners filed their declarations of intent to naturalize before the 1917 Act was passed and the Asiatic Barred Zone established—the earliest was Sakharam Ganesh Pandit in 1911 and the latest was Ganga Singh in 1916—but all their petitions for naturalization were granted after the 1917 Act was passed. All five petitions for naturalization were signed by judges in either state Superior Court or federal District Court; three of them were signed by the same judge.18 Whether the decision to approve petitions for naturalization of these five men was done in ignorance of the 1917 Act’s identification of British India as part of the Asiatic Barred Zone, or the judges in question were deliberately circumventing an ex post facto application of law they viewed as unjust or invalid, the fact remains that it was a mistake of law for the court to naturalize these men. At best, this demonstrates a level of legal confusion on what constituted race, whiteness, and Asia. Both social and legal constructions of race were in flux in the years following the passage of the 1917 Act on Section 2169, creating a state of uncertainty that allowed for the uneven application of racial identities.
Thind itself speaks to this unevenness. District Court for the Federal District of Oregon Judge Charles Wolverton’s published opinion reveals the degree to which understandings of race were evolving at the time of the case.19 Wolverton outright refused to entertain the issue of race sciences and ethnography, giving no regard to whether Thind was biologically Caucasian, and instead wrote an opinion that took much more seriously Thind’s behavior as a good citizen-subject:
“I am impressed that his deportment here entitles him to become a citizen, unless it be that he is debarred from citizenship under the naturalization and immigration laws of Congress. I am not disposed to discuss the question as one of first impression whether a high-class Hindu, coming from Punjab, is ethnologically a white person, within the meaning of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes, as amended.”20
Wolverton’s opinion represents an argument that behavior is enough to constitute whiteness, an idea with implications that call into question the validity of white supremacist racial constructs elsewhere. In the Appellant’s brief for the Ninth Circuit, Lester Humphreys, the US Attorney for Oregon, argued that Thind’s naturalization had been “illegally procured,” and that “a Hindu can not [sic] be naturalized unless he be a ‘free white person.’”21 Even in this brief, there is a move away from the methods of classification used by racial science, which had been so critical to formulations of race only decades prior. The reason for this move is that in the Respondent’s Brief, Thind’s attorney Thomas Mannix made an overt appeal to race sciences to identify himself as Caucasian and therefore White: “From the viewpoint of ethnology, that is, taking the Hindu and comparing his physical structure with that of the white Englishman or Scotchman, we find the same physical traits. If a Hindu of the Aryan race was light in color he would pass in London for an Englishman, so far as his appearance is concerned.”22
The case that reached the Supreme Court, then, turned on whether to continue to use understandings of race science to animate Section 2169. The US Supreme Court published its decision on Thind only four months after publishing the decision in Takao Ozawa v. United States. George Sutherland, the most junior Associate Justice, wrote both opinions. Two decisions construct whiteness in decidedly different ways in the interest of excluding both Ozawa and Thind from citizenship. In Ozawa, Sutherland wrote that the term “Caucasian” as based in race sciences is to be used to understand whiteness as an ontological category:
The determination that the words “white person” are synonymous with the words “a person of the Caucasian race” simplifies the problem, although it does not entirely dispose of it. […] The effect of the conclusion that the words “white person” means a Caucasian is not to establish a sharp line of demarcation between those who are entitled and those who are not entitled to naturalization, but rather a zone of more or less debatable ground outside of which, upon the one hand, are those clearly eligible, and outside of which, upon the other hand, are those clearly ineligible for citizenship.23
However, Thind argued that he was descended from Aryans and therefore Caucasian himself. Sutherland, in the Thind opinion, made only glancing reference to Ozawa, and instead articulated the importance of the term “Caucasian” entirely differently:
What we now hold is that the words “free white persons” are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word “Caucasian” only as that word is popularly understood. As so understood and used, whatever may be the speculations of the ethnologist, it does not include the body of people to whom the appellee belongs. It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white.24
When held side by side, the Ozawa and Thind decisions animate the term “Caucasian” for different purposes, allowing for different constructions of whiteness even as the cases at hand deal with the same body of case law. This inherent instability, and the flexibility to change definitions of racial categories across time, reinforces how evolving meanings of whiteness motivated exclusionary policies and practices. More importantly, Sutherland was able to ascribe different intentions to the authors of decades-old statutory and case law, actively reinterpreting them to give validity and a sense of permanence to his early twentieth-century reading of the racial subjectivities of Ozawa and Thind. Precedent for this type of construction set by the Supreme Court created space for the arguments that would ultimately be brought in jurisdictions such as the US District Court for the Federal District of California, Southern Division, wherein the US Attorney’s Office would have space to stretch legal definitions of race, changing previously held understandings of the law to clarify the racial identities of South Asian immigrant men.
There was one critical difference between Ozawa and Thind: the former was a naturalization case, while the latter was a denaturalization case.25 The agents of the Bureau of Naturalization and the US Attorney’s Offices to which they submitted their affidavits used Thind as a cudgel to delegitimize established immigrant communities whose place in the United States was reliant on nuance. In the aftermath of Thind, with the new possibilities that the case opened up, denaturalization applied racial categories to immigrants that had not been in place at the time of their naturalization.
The court system was instrumental in creating “natural” racialized identities. Shiv Ram, Mohan Singh, Ganga Singh, Deir Chand, and Sakharam Ganesh Pandit became subject to the inherent flexibility of these categories across time: they were legally ineligible for naturalization when it was granted to them anyway. When the US Attorney’s Office moved to denaturalize them under Section 2169, it was using a twentieth-century understanding of race to animate an eighteenth-century law. US v. Bhagat Singh Thind provided the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, Southern Division, with a tool to move the understandings of race set forth in both Section 2169 and the 1917 Act forward through time in a way that presented those understandings as fixed and natural, while also inscribing a new understanding of transgression of the border as a producer of race.
The Denaturalization Cases
While there were clear differences in circumstances of all five of the respondents examined in this paper, their cases proceeded in more or less the same ways, lockstep with a new legal encoding of race animating Section 2169 forward through the Thind decision. After Thind was decided in February 1923, Frederick Jones, of the United States Bureau of Naturalization, at the time housed in the Department of Labor, moved quickly to work with the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, Southern Division, and filed affidavits swearing to the fact that all five respondents were not free White persons under Section 2169. The language in Jones’s affidavits, presented as Plaintiff’s Exhibits in all five denaturalization cases, is so uniform as to indicate that the Department of Labor likely had established language for such affidavits prepared. The language in the materials for In re Mohan Singh, Case Number G-104B, is representative of the language in all five cases. Following an identification of Jones and a summary of Singh’s application process for naturalization, the affidavit reads as follows:
That upon information and belief, the above named Mohna [sic] Singh is a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood and is not a white person within the meaning of Section 2169 of the United States Revised Statutes, and therefore, the order admitting him to citizenship was illegal.…That, in view of the above facts stated, and in conformity with the decree of the Supreme Court of “The United States of America, Appellant, ver. Bhagat Singh Thind, 202,” affiant verily believes that the certificate of naturalization issued to said Mohan Singh by virtue of the order of the Superior Court in and for the County of Los Angeles, State of California, as hereinbefore mentioned should be canceled.26
Such orders in all five cases were issued quickly after the Thind decision: in the cases of Shiv Ram, Deir Chand, and Mohan Singh, and Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, the affidavits were signed and submitted in April 1923, two months after Thind; the affidavit in Ganga Singh’s case was issued just one month later.27 The language in the affidavits indicates the problem that the US Attorney’s Offices were having with applying Section 2169 in the wake of the 1917 Act for if the law had been strong enough to allow prosecution, then the decree in Thind would not have been necessary to supplement it. Ganga Singh and Shiv Ram, in fact, had previously petitioned for naturalization and been denied on the basis that they were not White, but had been able to petition again regardless. Thind created a new opportunity to define South Asians in the United States out of whiteness. It changed the ability of the US Attorney’s Office to apply Section 2169 along easily defined lines that tied race to a White person’s understanding rather than multiple, situationally dependent factors used previously. In the Thind opinion, when Sutherland used the language of the “common man’s understanding” of whiteness, he moved away from previously established understandings of race predicated on race sciences, as discussed above, and in so doing broadened how an alien could be excluded from or prevented from entering the United States under the 1917 Act.28
The fact that this new legal understanding of race was used to bolster an exclusionary law already in effect meant that an understanding of race established in 1923 was projected backward onto 1870 in the service of an ultimate end goal of preserving white supremacy. The method required to achieve this amounted to excluding immigrants through race-based denaturalization proceedings. An arbitrary boundary between White and non-White relegated Pandit and the others to an inferior position, marking them irredeemably as part of the “Asiatic” race.
A logical reading of the law should have indicated that, as these men were naturalized under Section 2169 as it was understood at the time of their naturalization, they were protected from any ex post facto revision in understanding as to what the law said or how it should have been applied. Instead, the decision in Thind motivated a renewed evaluation of their own identities and subjected them to an evolving legal landscape over which they had no control. The Bureau of Naturalization and the US Attorney’s Office’s decision to use the Thind decision to bring new cases in equity under Section 2169 changed the possibilities of Section 2169 in a way that indicated that the “common man’s” understanding of whiteness was a perpetually fixed construction of race. Thind enshrined in law that those defined as Asians could never be considered White.
When the Petitions for Cancellation of Order and Certificate of Naturalization were issued in each of the five cases, they were all signed by United States Attorney Joseph C. Burke and Assistant United States Attorney Robert C. Camarillo, who argued the cases, as the petitioners. As the language in all five petitions is almost identical, the petition in Deir Chand’s case file serves as an example. After the first four sections, which outline the dates that Chand filed a declaration of intent and a petition to be naturalized, followed by his admission to citizenship and receipt of a certificate of naturalization, Clause V includes this statement:
That your petitioner is informed and believes and upon such information and belief alleges that the said order and decree of court and certificate of naturalization were illegally procured from said Court in this, that said defendant was at all times herein mentioned a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood and not a white person entitled to be naturalized under the provisions of Section 2169 of the Revised Statutes of the United States.29
Camarillo’s petition, unlike Jones’s affidavit, makes no reference to United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. However, Camarillo does cite Section 2169, which is of note because Section 2169, as amended in 1875, had the full force and effect of law when Chand and the others were naturalized, and it had not been an impediment to their naturalization at the time. The utility of Section 2169 had changed in the few intervening years to preclude them from citizenship where it had allowed them initially.
Ultimately the allegation that legitimized the denaturalization of South Asians after Thind was “illegal procurement”—the idea that South Asians had deliberately violated the law when pursuing and accepting US citizenship through the naturalization process. A change in federal law outside of their control was reinscribed as a crime committed against the US state, and the permanence of race was legitimized by the specific allegations the state made about why the naturalization of Pandit and the others was legally improper. More South Asian men were naturalized in 1917 than in any other year until the Hart-Cellar Act was passed in 1965.30 All were naturalized while Section 2169 had the full force and effect of law. Whether these men were considered White is not the issue; what is important is that their racial identities, whatever they were, were not enough to prevent them from being naturalized at the time. Indeed, in two of the cases discussed here, a South Asian person who had been previously rejected due to racial classification was later accepted in a new application, with the note that the problem of race had been “cured or removed.” The Thind case clearly establishes that race is perpetually flexible by design (a construction), which was illustrated by naturalization petitions being rendered invalid just six years later.
Further, the Assistant US Attorney’s use of the term “illegally procured” is revelatory of the way that legal understandings of race were shifting, and the five defendants as well as their attorneys used this to protect the naturalization certificates. In Deir Chand’s Answer to the US Attorney’s Office’s Petition, signed by his attorney George L. Keefer, he affirmed most of the basic biographical information presented in the petition and added that he served in the United States Army on November 1, 1917, and that he served loyally and was honorably discharged on May 21, 1919.31 In Clause VI of the Answer, Chand made this statement:
Defendant denies that the order and decree of court dated August 8, 1919, admitting him to citizenship, was illegally procured; and denies that the certificate of naturalization #1208408, records of this court, was illegally procured.32
Chand and Keefer, as well as all other defendants and defense attorneys in these cases, proceeded as if the argument that the US Attorney’s Office was making turned entirely on whether their naturalization certificates had been “illegally procured”; the attendant defense made in all five cases is that the naturalizations were obtained with full recognition of the law. This defense is most illustrated in the writings of Sakharam Ganesh Pandit. In the Motion to Dismiss and Points and Authorities in Support Thereof in Pandit’s case file, four of the eight sets of cases refer to the precedent for identifying something as having been “illegally procured.”33 Further, Pandit, acting as Mohan Singh’s lawyer, wrote the Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the Petition Praying for Cancellation of his Naturalization Certificate, and included a robust argument debating both the definition of “illegally” and “procured.” He asks, rhetorically, “Did this defendant do an illegal or underhanded act, or resort to trick or devise, in the mere fact that he applied to a court of the United States to be a citizen?”34 The argument here, that it is not an illegal procurement to be the petitioner in a case wherein a judge makes a mistake of law, reassigns the responsibility for any faulty granting of naturalization to the court. All five of the respondents had reasonably relied upon the belief that they had citizenship in the intervening years between their petitions and these petitions to cancel, so this argument should have had legal merit.
But the court was not persuaded. The issue at hand, for the court, was not whether naturalization had illegally been procured; the issue was whether the racial identities of the five respondents barred them from naturalization. The question in these cases instead was whether the racial construct established by Thind could be stretched backward to accommodate the naturalizations of South Asian men that had been granted at the time. Immigration law in the United States had always been a race-making project. But the burden of error falling upon the applicant for naturalization himself crystallized the racial hierarchy in making citizenship and whiteness something that immigrants could attempt to steal. The application of race, backed by the systemic power of the state, delegitimized central aspects of the lives of the five respondents years after those aspects had come into being.
For part of his case, Pandit appeared pro se, but for the early stages he was represented by a pair of attorneys that signed documents only “Newby and Palmer.”35 Pandit wrote enthusiastically in his own defense, and Newby and Palmer followed suit; in Pandit’s Answer, they argued in part that Pandit’s initial naturalization procedure had been fully legal and above board, going into great detail about the arguments and appearances in court, the witnesses called, and the testimony recorded.36
Pandit and Chand also included details about their lives as presumptive citizens. Pandit noted that, after becoming naturalized, he had become a notary public and then an attorney barred in the State of California.37 Chand wrote that as a veteran he had taken advantage of the provisions of the Veterans’ Farm and Home Purchase Act and bought a tract of land to cultivate as a farm.38 Pandit made additional arguments about his marriage to a White woman, arguing that Lillian Pandit, née Lillian B. Stringer, had made a large purchase of land, and she would lose title to it if her husband were to be denaturalized, as she would be denaturalized as well.39 As only citizens could serve as notary publics or attorneys, and only citizens could own land under California’s Alien Land Laws in place at the time, denaturalization would severely disenfranchise both men. In both cases, the US Attorney’s Office filed motions to strike the portions of the answer that were not responding directly, but these two moments in particular still serve to illustrate the shifting metrics and logics of race.40
Both Chand and Pandit had acted as legal citizens in the intervening years between their naturalizations and the denaturalization proceedings brought against them. Land ownership and bar admission was perfectly legal for both if their racial subjectivities were interpreted as White. The US Attorney’s Office utilizing Thind and the 1917 Act to change the interpretation of Section 2169 functioned almost as an ex post facto application of Thind as if it were statutory law to Chand and Pandit, depriving them of rights under a legal framework that had not been in place when they were naturalized. The 1917 Act had affirmed the racialized idea of Asia out of colonial borders, and the US Supreme Court used this idea to mark Bhagat Singh Thind as something Other, something un-American. The US Attorney’s Office then deputized that construction of race to argue that the five respondents, including Pandit and Chand, had been non-White all along and had never been entitled to the rights they believed they had, and had in fact been granted.
The Pandit Papers
The power of Thind lay in its use as a tool for mass denaturalizations, and thus the devastation of an entire immigrant community. Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, one of the five subjects of this article and an attorney admitted to the California Bar Association in December of 1917, co-wrote with Ray E. Chase and self-published a pamphlet entitled “An Examination of the Opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States Deciding Against the Eligibility of Hindus for Citizenship.”41 Published in 1926, three years after the Thind decision and the year that Pandit’s own denaturalization case would ultimately be decided, the pamphlet took issue with many of the same aspects of the Thind decision that remain relevant: Pandit and Chase objected to the collapse of Thind and Ozawa into the same body of law, they questioned the validity of making legal policy out of the work of ethnologists, and, most important, they challenged the use of social constructions of race to change the meanings of laws written in the past.42
Pandit and Chase wrote at length about the weight of judicial authority that held that Hindus were White persons under the law up until the 1917 Act.43 They were not challenging the legal principle of exclusion from citizenship based on race as a general concept; rather, they were adamant that Hindus should still be legally considered White, as they had been up until that point. They argued that the social understandings of Hindus as part of the racialized category of “Asians” was purely a product of restive labor relations: “This prejudice [against Hindu laborers] would in all likelihood never have become important if there had not already existed a prejudice against Chinese and Japanese laborers which was easily made to extend itself to a people identified with them as ‘Asiatics.’”44 Here, Chase and Pandit referred to a string of acts of communal violence committed by White people against Asian immigrant communities in the first decade of the twentieth century. As historian Erika Lee has argued, these events shared narratives of White anxiety about the encroachment of Asian peoples into their spaces.45 This white supremacist anxiety over loss of control over public space gave rise to an expanded imagination of Asia. Immigrants as perceived invaders became associated with each other in white supremacist imaginations, linking immigration from British India and East Asian geographic spaces as part of the same racialized existential threat.
Pandit and Chase saw a clear line between such moments of communal physical violence and the more structural violence committed by the court. On page ten of their pamphlet, they cited Sutherland’s Thind opinion, arguing that the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone indicated a congressional attitude of opposition to both Asiatic immigration and, in inference, naturalization. They responded to Sutherland:
It is submitted that the inference made here is altogether illegitimate. It justifies by implication an interpretation of the will of Congress in 1875 in the light of an enactment made 42 years later to meet a set of conditions that no one could have foreseen in 1875, and that certainly no one did foresee. It suggests that the applications for citizenship of persons who had entered this country legally before the passage of the act of 1917 may be limited by that act, though that act does not deal with citizenship at all. This would manifestly be as inequitable as it would be illogical.46
Pandit, as both a lawyer and a subject of denaturalization proceedings, clearly understood that his own racialized identity was subject to the whims of those serving a legal system designed to uphold white supremacy. Though Pandit himself remained the same, judicial interpretations of his race altered his legal subjectivity.
This pamphlet is an account of how the inherent instability of racialized categories affected the South Asian immigrant community in Southern California in the wake of the Thind decision. Pandit was at the nexus of the shifting legal landscape slowly bringing together questions of immigration and naturalization as part of the same race-making project, continuing a trajectory that began with the Chinese Exclusion Act and now moving to accommodate an expanded US understanding of Asia. Through the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth, the legal questions of immigration and citizenship were inching closer together, and Pandit’s situation was a moment of their near-convergence. But the Thind decision affected broad swaths of people beyond just Pandit. The Immigration Act of 1917 and the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone effectively expanded the categories of undesirable immigrants and, at least as it was interpreted, applied its standards to those already citizens of the United States, and insinuated the permanence and easy identification of race.
At the conclusions of their respective cases, Deir Chand, Mohan Singh, Shiv Ram, and Ganga Singh were denaturalized.47 The cases of Ganga Singh, Shiv Ram, and Deir Chand were all decided by decree, leaving us without any indication of the judge’s legal reasoning behind the decisions. However, by the time Mohan Singh’s case was decided, it had been joined with that of his attorney, Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, and Judge William Bledsoe wrote a two-page opinion addressing both of their cases. Bledsoe had been the judge who had signed the Order of Court Admitting Petitioner granting Mohan Singh naturalization in 1919; this same document was even used by the US Attorney’s Office in their case against Mohan Singh as one of their exhibits.48 In the Memorandum Opinion supplementing the Final Decree, Bledsoe, citing Thind, wrote that Mohan Singh was a “high-caste Hindoo [sic] of full Indian blood” and so was ineligible to citizenship.49 As to the question of whether or not a person could be denaturalized as a result of their naturalization having been illegally procured, Blesdoe wrote that “It would seem that the rulings of the United States Supreme Court […] are conclusive and require this Court to deny the respective motions to dismiss.”50
Blesdoe, despite having been willing to consider a South Asian man a White person eligible to citizenship in 1919, was bound by the weight of the authority of the United States Supreme Court in 1924. Nothing about Mohan Singh’s subjectivities had changed in the intervening five years. All that had changed was the tools available to the court to interpret those subjectivities and apply newly adapted racialized meaning to Singh’s body. The Asiatic Barred Zone, cited in George Sutherland’s opinion in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind as inferred evidence of congressional intent regarding race, wrapped itself around Mohan Singh and the others, marking them as legally of a race other than White. Mohan Singh’s race was “a high caste Hindoo [sic] of full Indian blood,” and that had always been the case, contrary to what he and Blesdoe had believed merely five years earlier. The construction of Mohan Singh’s race in 1924 changed the construction of his race in 1919, in a move that simultaneously reaffirmed the perpetual power of whiteness and narrowed its boundaries.
Unlike his working-class comrades, Sakharam Ganesh Pandit retained his citizenship.51 In a transcript of Judge Paul McCormick’s verbal remarks in open court accompanying the decree, McCormick began by stating that it was to be universally understood that, under the “common man’s understanding” point laid out by Sutherland in Thind, Pandit was not White.52 But what mattered more to McCormick in Pandit’s individual case was not so much his subjectivities and the new racial constructs that Thind applied to them, but rather Pandit’s actions as being a good citizen-subject. The third page of the transcript of remarks contains a lengthy list of aspects of Pandit’s life that indicate his reliance upon his citizenship. This list includes his marriage to a White woman and her subsequent purchase of real property as well as his work toward becoming an attorney.53 McCormick also noted that Pandit entered the United States lawfully as the 1917 Act had not yet been passed at the time of his entry, and that he had observed every applicable law during his process of petitioning for citizenship.54
Although McCormick overlooked Pandit’s racial identity because of Pandit’s behavior as a good citizen-subject, the construction of that racial identity still matters. Pandit was legally not White, and according to McCormick’s decision, had not been White all along. However good his behavior was and however reasonably he had relied on his rights as a citizen, he nevertheless belonged to a racial class of people who had always been inherently ineligible for citizenship.
Conclusion: The Immigration Act of 1924 and the Closing of the Borders
Immediately following McCormick’s signing of his decree in the Pandit case, Assistant United States Attorney J. Edwin Simpson filed a notice of appeal, which McCormick signed on February 24, 1926, almost exactly three years after the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Thind.55 The United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld McCormick’s ruling under the principle of res judicata, indicating that the case had been heard by a competent court and therefore the decision should stand.56 The potential for an unfavorable precedent was apparently too risky for the Bureau of Naturalization and the various offices of the United States Attorney, and subsequently all pending cases arguing for the denaturalization of South Asian citizens were dropped.57 If Pandit’s naturalization were to be upheld by a higher court on the basis of his education, his marriage, or his aspiration toward whiteness, then the Bureau of Naturalization stood to lose its ability to broadly define immigrants, South Asian and otherwise, out of whiteness. Meanwhile, Bhagat Singh Thind himself eventually did procure citizenship, after the 1935 passage of the Nye-Lea Act, which made naturalization available to all veterans of the United States military.58
While these five denaturalization cases were proceeding, however, the United States Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act (Johnson-Reed), which cemented a narrow definition of whiteness and expansive definition of undesirable non-White subjects that had developed over the preceding years. By instituting, among other things, a ban on the immigration of “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” Johnson-Reed collapsed the difference between immigration and naturalization. Now people who wished to enter the United States with no plans to become citizens could not do so unless they met the criterion of legal whiteness set forth by Thind. The US border was, in effect, closed to everyone but White people, and would remain so, with few exceptions, until the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in the 1950s. With the “common man’s understanding” of whiteness as laid out in the Thind decision now having the full force and effect of law, Johnson-Reed positioned the social construction of whiteness as the primary criterion for entrance into the United States. This indicates that border crossings—including infrastructures of the border like naturalization—produce a seemingly universal conception of race on to all who enter the nation. It became a permanent aspect of identity and therefore a necessary and sufficient criterion for citizenship.
Legal constructions of race continued to shift, sweeping Pandit and the others along with them. The image of “Asian” crystallized in US jurisprudence as something to be excluded from, and deemed lesser than White. Enshrining these divisions in an ever-evolving body of both case law and statutory law enabled legal constructions of race to be molded to the present moment, paradoxically in a way that made those constructions seem fixed and unchanging. George Sutherland’s citation of the 1917 Act in the Thind opinion used the Asiatic Barred Zone to produce a racial identity upon Bhagat Singh Thind that had not existed when he, or any of the five respondents discussed herein, had applied for, and been granted citizenship. Where before a South Asian applicant for US citizenship could rely on the sympathies of the first judge he encountered, or on his own skin type, hair color, community support, religious affiliation, or other variable element of appearance and subjectivity, he was now reduced to his legally ascribed racial categorization.
As time went on and Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, Deir Chand, Mohan Singh, Ganga Singh, and Shiv Ram went about their lives as US citizens, nothing about who they were changed, but the way that the power of the state, and its definition of whiteness, impacted them did. United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind was a manifestation of not only the legal infrastructure of the border but also a means of refining US white supremacy, and as such, was a tool to change the constructed identities of the five respondents regarded herein to say that not only were they not entitled to their naturalizations now, but that they never had been at all.
In Impossible Subjects, Ngai argues that the precarity that comes with existing in the space between the threat of deportation and the artificially created need for exploitable labor makes the immigrant inherently problematic, thus creating a permanent need for border security, which reifies the precarity of immigrants and therefore their availability to exploitation. Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005).
Ian Haney-López, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, Critical America (New York: New York University Press, 1996).
Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999); Haney-López, White by Law; Sherally Munshi, “‘You Will See My Family Became So American’: Toward a Minor Comparativism,” American Journal of Comparative Law 63, no. 3 (October 9, 2015): 655–718, https://doi.org/10.5131/AJCL.2015.0019; Neda Maghbouleh, The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2017).
USA vs. Shiv Ram (1924), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “A,” Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21.6.9; National Archives and Records Administration—Southern California Region (Riverside).
USA vs. Shiv Ram (1924), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “A.”
USA vs Ganga Singh (1925), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “A,” Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21.6.9; National Archives and Records Administration—Southern California Region (Riverside).
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “A,” Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21.6.9; National Archives and Records Administration—Southern California Region (Riverside).
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), Answer.
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “A.”
In re Mohan Singh (1924), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “A,” Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21.6.9; National Archives and Records Administration—Southern California Region (Riverside).
In re Mohan Singh (1924), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “B.”
USA vs. Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “C,” Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21.6.9; National Archives and Records Administration—Southern California Region (Riverside).
USA vs. Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “C.”
USA vs. Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Answer.
Seema Sohi, “The Immigration Act of 1917,” in Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History, eds. Xiaojian Zhao and Edward J. W. Park (Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014).
Sixty-Fourth Congress, “An Act To Regulate the Immigration of Aliens to, and the Residence of Aliens in, the United States,” Chapter 29 § Section 8 (1917).
Roger Daniels, The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion; with a New Supplementary Bibliography, Print on demand vol (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1977).
In re Mohan Singh (1924), Case No. G 104 in Equity, Plaintiff’s Exhibit “C,” United States of America vs Ganga Singh (1925), Case No. G 104 B In Equity, Plaintiff’s Exhibit “C;” United States of America vs Deir Chand (1925), Case No. G 105 In Equity, Plaintiff’s Exhibit “C.”
As part of my research for this project, I have searched without success for the trial briefs either in person or through interlocutors in the following locations: The US National Archives and Records Administration facilities in Seattle, San Bruno, and College Park; the Library of Congress; the law libraries at the University of Washington, Lewis and Clark University, Willamette University College of Law, and the University of Oregon; the Oregon Historical Society; the Multnomah County Historical Association; the US Federal Courthouse in Portland; and the family records of Bhagat Singh Thind’s surviving adult children.
In re Bhagat Singh Thind, 268 F. 683 (1920).
United States of America vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, Case No. 3745, Transcript of Record Upon Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, Filed August 5, 1921, pg. 2, Records of the US Circuit Court for the Ninth Circuit, Records Group 21.6.5; National Archives and Records Administration—Northern California (San Bruno).
United States of America vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, Case No. 3745, Transcript of Record Upon Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, Filed August 5, 1921, p. 66.
Takao Ozawa vs United States, 260 US 178 (1922).
United States vs Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 US 204 (1923).
Takao Ozawa, unlike Bhagat Singh Thind, had never been awarded citizenship. As such, the US Supreme Court’s refusal to grant it to him did not establish a precedent for the denaturalization of other people. Conversely, Thind had been naturalized at the trial court level and denaturalized at the Supreme Court level. As such, the Supreme Court’s decision finding him ineligible for citizenship and denaturalizing him became the law of the land in a way that legalized the denaturalization of other men with Thind’s same racialized subjectivities.
In re Mohan Singh, Plaintiff’s Exhibit “E.”
United States of America vs Shiv Ram (1924), Case No. G 103 In Equity, “Affidavit of Frederick Jones,” USA vs Deir Chand (1925), “Affidavit of Frederick Jones,” In re Mohan Singh (1924), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “E,” United States of America vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Case No. G 111 T In Equity, Petitioner’s Exhibit “D,” USA vs Ganga Singh (1925), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “D.”
United States vs Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 US 204 (1923).
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), “Petition for Cancellation of Order and Certificate of Naturalization,” 2.
Joan M. Jensen, Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 255.
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), Answer.
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), Answer.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Motion to Dismiss and Points and Authorities in Support Thereof.
In re Mohan Singh (1924), Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the Petition Praying for Cancellation of his Naturalization Certificate.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Answer.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Answer.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Answer.
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), Answer.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Answer.
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), Motion to Strike Portions of Answer, USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Motion to Strike Portions of Answer.
“Attorney Search—The State Bar of California,” The State Bar of California Attorney Search, accessed February 16, 2020, http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/LicenseeSearch/QuickSearch?FreeText=pandit&SoundsLike=false.
Ray E. Chase and S. G. Pandit, An Examination of the Opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States Deciding Against the Eligibility of Hindus for Citizenship (S. G. Pandit, 1926).
Chase and Pandit, 9.
Chase and Pandit, 9.
Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2015).
Chase and Pandit, An Examination of the Opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States Deciding Against the Eligibility of Hindus for Citizenship, 10.
USA vs Deir Chand (1925), Final Decree; In re Mohan Singh (1924), Memorandum Opinion; USA vs Shiv Ram (1924), Final Decree; USA vs Ganga Singh (1925), Final Decree.
In re Mohan Singh (1924), Plaintiff’s Exhibit “C.”
In re Mohan Singh (1924), Memorandum Opinion.
In re Mohan Singh (1924), Memorandum Opinion.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Decree.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Decree.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Decree.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Decree.
USA vs Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (1926), Order Allowing Appeal.
Doug Coulson, Race, Nation, and Refuge: The Rhetoric of Race in Asian American Citizenship Cases (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017), 104.
Padma Rangaswamy, “Sakharam Ganesh Pandit,” in Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia, ed. Huping Ling and Allan W Austin (London; New York: Routledge, 2015), 347.
Coulson, Race, Nation, and Refuge, 104.