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Did You Know...Customs and Immigration Officers Helped 'Kidnap' Chinese Girls to Save Them

Human trafficking has a long and sad history in many countries. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teenage and younger Chinese girls were often lured to America with false promises of a better life. Many were caught up in trafficking and spent years in slavery and prostitution. In San Francisco, though, CBP's legacy customs and immigration employees played a role in rescuing many Chinese girls from their captors and cruel fates.

The Page Act of 1875 made it illegal to import women from "the Orient" for the purposes of prostitution, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted entry of people of Chinese descent into the U.S. The 1882 law permitted the upper class and business elite to immigrate with their families, but it banned outright members of the working class.

This meant that male Chinese laborers already living in America had no prospects of companionship or marriage with women of their own social class and origins. Human traffickers filled the void by illegally bringing in women and girls who willingly made the trip under the untruthful promise of marriage or respectable work, or whose poor families sold them to the traffickers.


Five rescued Chinese girls at a San Francisco mission. Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1904.

During the long voyage from China, traffickers coached their victims to say that they were the wife or daughter of a prosperous man already living in the U.S. and supplied them with fine clothing and forged papers to help them pass questioning at the port of entry. Traffickers portrayed port officers as evil men who would physically harm them and deny them their better future, frightening the girls into compliance. Upon arriving, many falsely claimed habeas corpus-that they were legal U.S. residents who traveled to China for a visit and had the right to reenter the U.S. to "rejoin" their families. Traffickers drilled them with information about life in America-local street names, names of neighbors, names of businesses-in an effort to make it seem like they had been living here all along.

The U.S. Customs Service in the Department of the Treasury was responsible for coordinating enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act for nearly 30 years. Inspectors and interpreters of the Chinese Bureau reported to the collector of customs. Chinese inspectors questioned new arrivals about their histories and scrutinized their documents. During the early years of the act, the officers had no legal grounds to detain or refuse entry to women whose stories they could not easily disprove. Once past Customs, authorities found it extremely difficult to track the girls' whereabouts; traffickers spirited them away to Chinatown brothels or other forced servitude.

Customs Special Agent H.A. Moore, the dock supervisor of the Chinese Bureau in San Francisco, complained to Washington to do something about the plight of the women and legal maneuvers used by traffickers to "land" their victims in the U.S. Several officers in San Francisco found ways around the legal restrictions, sometimes acting without official sanction. When they suspected a girl was doomed to a life of prostitution, they noted who claimed her and tipped off one of the local church-sponsored rescue missions that she needed their help. Agents like John Robinson actively participated in raids on brothels to rescue the women. Collector John P. Jackson not only accompanied rescue operations, but also testified against traffickers in court.


In 1912, Customs Guard W.H.J. Deasy refused a bribe and captured a trafficker with four smuggled Chinese girls.

In 1900, a new U.S. Immigration Station opened on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay as the federal government's site to receive, process and detain immigrants seeking admission on the West Coast. The U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Bureau of Immigration, and U.S. Public Health Service worked in tandem managing the port of entry and immigration station. The Bureau of Immigration took responsibility for processing immigrants from the Customs Service in 1910. Chinese women with "questionable" histories were no longer released into the brothels of San Francisco, but instead remained in detention on Angel Island while their claims were researched.

To this day, CBP continues to combat human trafficking into the U.S. with programs like the Blue Lightning Initiative, which trains commercial airline personnel to identify and report suspected cases of human trafficking. Also addressing this important issue is CBP's No Te Engañes ("Don't Be Fooled") campaign, which educates the general public about traffickers and their recruiting methods and tries to reach and rescue trafficking victims.

For questions, comments, and story contributions, contact the CBP History Program at CBPhistory@dhs.gov.