ON 6 SEPTEMBER 1915, 22-year-old Kala Bagai arrived at Angel Island aboard the SS Korea with her husband and three sons. Kala carried a material archive of her life in her luggage: gold ornaments, a portrait of herself, a sky-blue silk sari reserved for special occasions. Kala had carefully chosen the valuables, knowing her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, intended to establish a home in the United States.
After being questioned and examined at Angel Island, the Bagai family made their way to San Francisco. Sixteen days later, Vaishno submitted his declaration of intention for naturalisation. Given that a married woman’s nationality was considered a corollary of her husband’s, and a child’s nationality derived from the father’s, Vaishno’s application was important for the whole family.
Vaishno prepared his naturalisation case hoping he would secure enough evidence to prove he qualified as a White person. At the time, the United States required each immigrant to prove five years of legal residency in the country and that he was a “free white person . . . of good character.” The latter requirement, delineated by the US Congress’s first uniform law for naturalisation in 1790, succinctly captured federal attempts to mold and settle a nation with White citizens. While birthright citizenship was legalised in 1868 and the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalisation to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” virtually all other aspiring US citizens were required to legally qualify as “free white persons.” Between 1878 and 1952, US federal courts adjudicated more than fifty cases from immigrants from Asia, the Pacific, and Central and South America to determine who was White.