2023 June – Beyond the Golden Door: Immigrants to the U.S.A. after 1890

Beside, Through, and Beyond the Golden Door: Immigrants to the United States of America After 1890

Coordinator: Rich Venezia, with additional instructors: Marian L. Smith, Alec Ferretti, Marisa Louie Lee

Held 18-23 June 2023, virtually. Registration Information. To see Rich Venezia talk about the course, see THIS YouTube VIDEO.

Recent immigrant ancestors often came to the United States of America to seek their fortune – or simply, better lives for their family. Along the way and once they arrived, they interacted with shipping companies, government departments, and many other agencies. The paper trail they left behind can be rich with genealogical information that greatly enhances the stories of these families, but these records are often underutilized or overlooked. The unique case of late 19th– and 20th-century immigrants is that, as federal laws were codified and strengthened, the paperwork needed to enter the USA, and continue to reside there, expanded exponentially. This course aims to dissect a host of records related to these recent immigrants, many of which are federal records housed at the National Archives or with other government agencies. It will be an in-depth exploration into these various record sets, why they’re useful, and how to access them. It is intended to be an advanced look at how to research deeply and learn even more about the lives and times of our recent immigrant ancestors. This course is not ethnicity-specific, and will include examples about and record sets related to immigrants to from all over the world.

  • Note – For simplicity, the term “20th-century” is used throughout the course outline, but many of these record sets also contain records relevant to late 19th-century immigrants (hence the course title).
  • Course Objectives and Expectations – Students will learn about a host of record sets related to late 19th– and 20th-century immigrants held by archives and agencies all across the United States. They will learn which immigrants may be found in which records and how to obtain those records. They will leave the course with ideas on where to look for records for immigrants they previously believed they’d found all there was to find, as well as places to search for immigrant research subjects who have proven difficult to research. They will also leave with a better understanding of why certain records only exist for certain immigrants.
  • Suggested Prerequisites – This is an advanced course. Students should have conducted thorough in-depth, on-site research at several archives before, preferably at the National Archives or one of its regional branches.

To see Rich Venezia’s TedxPittsburgh talk “How to Grow Empathy From Uncovering Your Roots” view this 10-minute video in which Rich talks about his immigrant ancestors and how family stories help each of us personally.


10:00 AM – Course Introduction & Overview (Smith & Venezia) – This week-long course will discuss a variety of record sets, terms, and indexes that can be confusing as they re-appear in different contexts. The nature of these records is that one cannot delve into X record without knowing about Y and Z records, but coming in with no knowledge of X, Y, nor Z presents some issues. During this session, we will break down how the course will be taught and identify the cyclical nature of some of these records. We will identify the major immigration and naturalization indexes and learn their names, aliases, and citations, and become familiar with a handout designed to help the students (and the instructors) avoid confusion.

11:30 AM – 20th-century Immigration: History, Timeline, and Laws (Venezia) – Prior to understanding the records created, an understanding of the immigration influx into America in the 20th-century must be addressed. Push and pull factors will be discussed, as well as a brief overview of the times, and the sentiments or events which caused some of the records that will be discussed during the week to be created in the first place. An overview of the laws related to (and leading up to) 20th-century century immigration will also be conducted.

1:45 PM – US Passenger Arrival Records and Indexes (Ferretti/Venezia) – This session will begin with a high-level introduction to immigration passenger arrival records and their forms and changes over time. The majority of the session will focus on more advanced uses of the records, such as interpreting annotations made at the time of arrival or made later and relating to naturalization. Associated records connected to detention or exclusion (special inquiry) will also be discussed. Examples will include both ship passenger lists and land border manifests. Manifest indexes will also be discussed, and how these various indexes on NARA microfilms can help to locate otherwise “unfindable” manifests – especially when the records they index have since been destroyed… or there was no arrival record created at the time of arrival!

3:15 PM – Board of Special Inquiry (BSI) Records (Venezia/Smith) – Many researchers see “BSI” listed next to an ancestor’s name on a ship manifest and are disappointed to find that most of these records no longer exist. However, records of the Boards of Special Inquiry are still extant for various years in the ports of San Francisco, San Pedro, the environs of El Paso, and Philadelphia. Records of cases that were appealed to the Central Office in Washington, D. C., may also be found. These remaining records will be examined to discover what stories they tell about individuals held for questioning.

4:30 PM Enhancement session: Supplemental Q&A (Smith/Venezia/Ferretti) – This session will review the records discussed throughout the day, and provide additional time for questions about the sessions.


10:00 AM – U. S. Citizenship: The Laws and Records of Naturalization (Venezia) – A host of records were created when immigrant ancestors became American citizens. This lecture dives into naturalization records and how to find them. Naturalization laws that created records that may be considered unusual will be covered, as well – when American-born women who lost their US citizenship repatriated, for one. The concept of derivative citizenship will also be discussed.

11:30 AM – USCIS Certificate Files (C-Files) (Venezia) – This lecture will examine the ten different sub-series of C-Files, which document naturalizations or repatriations of individuals, currently available through the USCIS Genealogy Program. These include C-Files, OL C-Files, OM C-Files, OS C-Files for naturalized citizens, Derivative A C-Files and Derivative AA C-Files for derivative citizens, and B Certificates, D Certificates, 3904/Series Records, and 129/Series Records for repatriated citizens. Each sub-series is quite unique and the circumstances that would lead to a search for each type of file will be discussed.

1:45 PM – Immigration Correspondence Files at the National Archives (Smith) – The INS kept many records relating to individual immigrants in its correspondence files dating 1906 to 1944 (some to 1957). While the content of these records varies greatly, some genealogical gems included in the files include Board of Special Inquiry appeals, immigrant deportations, and applications for removal to one’s native country. The subject index to these files (T458) and its idiosyncrasies will be discussed as well as other finding aids, and case studies will be examined.

3:15 PM – Bureau of Naturalization Correspondence Files at the National Archives (Smith) – The Bureau of Naturalization kept records of its correspondence from 1906 to 1946. Included among these correspondence files are inquiries regarding citizenship status, requests for copies of passenger lists to prove age or arrival date, and investigations related to fraudulent naturalization. Accessing the name index to these files (A3388) and associated records will be discussed. Examples and case studies will illustrate the importance of these records.

4:30 PM Enhancement session: Supplemental Q&A (Smith/Venezia/Ferretti) – This session will review the records discussed throughout the day, and provide additional time for questions about the sessions.


10:00 AM – USCIS Visa Files & Registry Files (Smith) – A new US immigration policy and legislation of the 1920s created new and different records now available via the USCIS Genealogy Program. Visa Files, 1924-1944, document persons lawfully admitted for permanent residence during those years. Registry Files document the “legalization” of persons who arrived prior to 1921 or 1924 but for whom no arrival record could be found. Learn who will, won’t, and might have one of these files holding valuable genealogical information as well as original vital records.

11:30 AM – 20th-Century Alien Registrations (Venezia) – Alien registration in the 1900s was not confined to the 1940 Alien Registration Act and the Form AR-2 that is well known to 20th-century immigrant researchers. This lecture will cover enemy alien registrations in WWI and WWII, state registrations interwar, and other times during the century when aliens were registered.

1:45 PM –A-Files: NARA, USCIS, or FOIA? (Ferretti) – This lecture will be an exploration of the record set Alien Files (A-Files), many of which are held by USCIS, and some of which are held by regional branches of the National Archives. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act requests for USCIS records, mainly related to those created or modified after 1956, will also be discussed.

3:15 PM – Old DO Files and P-Files (Venezia/Smith) – This session will cover other INS records that can currently only be obtained via FOIA requests to USCIS. These little-known records can contain goldmines of information about immigrants who naturalized between 1906 and 1950, or immigrants who interacted with local field offices between 1944 and 1955.

4:30 PM Enhancement session – Supplemental Q&A (Smith/Venezia/Ferretti) – This session will review the records discussed throughout the day, and provide additional time for questions about the sessions.


10:00 AM – Department of State Records at NARA College Park (Venezia) – The National Archives (NARA) at College Park holds the archival records of the Central Files of the Department of State (Record Group (RG) 59). 20th-century immigrant ancestors are just waiting to be found in visa case files (1914 – 1940, an excellent complement to their USCIS visa file if extant) and the Central Decimal Files (1910 – 1963), among other records. A main focus will be on the Central Decimal File name index cards, which may lead to a host of records held in the Department of State’s papers, including correspondence, inquiries, and other assorted records, and the classification scheme that also serves as a subject index to those same files.

11:30 AM – Foreign Service Post Records at NARA College Park (Venezia) – NARA College Park also holds the archival records of U. S. Embassies and Consulates in Foreign Service Post records (RG 84). In some cases, 20th-century immigrant ancestors may also be found in Consular records, including records/reports of births, marriages, and deaths of citizens abroad, registrations of citizens abroad, as well as in records related to visa matters, expatriation, and other assorted topics.

1:45 PM – Philadelphia Port Records (Smith) – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is unique among American ports of entry because records survive to document nearly every activity of immigration authorities during the late 19th– and early 20th– centuries. Detailed records surviving at the National Archives in Philadelphia and in Washington, D.C., reveal the details of immigrant processing, detention, and deportation operations in Philadelphia between approximately 1882 and 1909.

3:15 PM – Putting it All Together: Case Studies (Venezia/Ferretti) – Students will be presented with various case studies and use their knowledge from the courses of the week to determine in which record sets the various subjects should be located. The case studies will be designed to show the rich family stories one can learn when utilizing the various record sets discussed throughout the week.

4:30 PM Enhancement session – Supplemental Q&A (Smith/Venezia/Ferretti) – This session will review the records discussed throughout the day, and provide additional time for questions about the sessions.


10:00 AM – Chinese Exclusion Era Records (Louie Lee) – The Chinese Exclusion Act became law in 1882, severely restricting Chinese immigration to the United States. Numerous other laws affecting immigrants from other Asian countries followed suit. Chinese Exclusion Act-era case files and related record series contain a wealth of information about Chinese immigrants, their American-born children, and Chinese immigrant communities in the United States. Learn about the types of records you’ll find in these files and the value and limitations of these files for genealogical research.

11:30 AM – FOIA/PA Primer (Ferretti) – 20th-century immigrant researchers need to be familiar with both the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act (PA), as not all files that are genealogically valuable are yet archival. An introduction to these laws will give researchers the tools they need to submit requests to governmental agencies for records to which they may be legally entitled but have not yet made their way into the public domain.

Course Wrap-Up and Certificates before Lunch