INS Boards of Special Inquiry (BSI) Records
Beginning in the 1880s, Congress passed a series of laws that excluded certain categories of immigrants from entering the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891 (26 Stat. 1084) created a federal immigration office charged with enforcing these exclusions. Specifically, the act required that federal immigration officers be stationed at major ports of entry to inspect immigrants upon arrival. These officers, known as Immigration Inspectors, were empowered to deny immigrants entry to the United States if the immigrants fell into one of the excluded classes. Inspectors’ decisions were final unless appealed directly to the Superintendent of Immigration (later known as the Commissioner-General of Immigration).
The Immigration Act of 1893 (27 Stat. 569) revised this procedure by establishing Boards of Special Inquiry (BSIs) to review each exclusion case. These boards consisted of three Immigration Inspectors who heard testimony and accepted evidence in excluded immigrants’ cases. During these hearings, immigrants usually had the opportunity to explain their situation and the reasons why they should be admitted. Initially, all three members of the board had to agree to admit an excluded immigrant for that immigrant to be allowed into the United States; later, this provision was amended so that the majority of the board (two of three members) could admit an immigrant. If the BSI upheld the exclusion, the immigrant was deported. Subsequent immigration acts, including the Immigration Act of 1917 (39 Stat. 874, Sec. 17), further codified BSIs’ authority over exclusion and deportation procedures.
Between 1892 and 1924, ten percent or more of arriving immigrants were detained every day for a BSI hearing. Immigration Inspectors stationed at ports of entry often initially excluded immigrants under the “likely to become a public charge” (LPC) category because the immigrants lacked funds or did not have friends or relatives nearby who could support them. BSIs typically overturned these exclusions if an immigrant aid society accepted responsibility for the immigrant. If the BSI affirmed their exclusion under any category, however, immigrants could appeal their case to the Commissioner-General of Immigration in Washington, DC.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (66 Stat. 163) eliminated BSIs and instead established special inquiry officers to review and decide deportation cases.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) does not house records of all BSI hearings ever held. In most instances, the federal agency in charge of immigration—the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now known as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—only preserved records of BSI appeals for eventual transfer to NARA. BSIs excluded and ordered the deportation of relatively few immigrants who had BSI hearings, and of those, even fewer appealed the decisions. Thus, NARA’s records document only a small fraction of all immigrants who had a BSI hearing.
BSI records are found in Record Group 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The majority of these records are housed at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, with other INS headquarters-level records. Select BSI records from INS district offices have survived and are housed at NARA’s field offices. These records are listed below, along with their National Archives Identifiers (NAIDs). Search the National Archives Catalog by the NAIDs for more detailed series descriptions.
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- Registers of Japanese, Filipinos, and Hawaiians Held for Boards of Special Inquiry at San Francisco, California, 9/2/1928–2/7/1942 (NAID 4497860)
- Microfilmed as A3408
- Digitized in the National Archives Catalog
- Minutes of the Boards of Special Inquiry at the San Francisco Office, 3/29/1899–2/10/1909 (NAID 4499531)
- Microfilmed as M1387
- Digitized in the National Archives Catalog
- Records of Persons Held for Boards of Special Inquiry at the San Pedro, California, Office, 11/3/1930–9/27/1936 (NAID 4486591)
- Registers of Persons Held for Boards of Special Inquiry at the San Francisco, California, Office, 2/1910–5/1941 (NAID 4468084)
- Subject and Policy Files, 1906–1957 (Entry A1 9; NAID 559947)
- Files 55,800 and above are subject to privacy restrictions. For more information, see INS Subject and Policy Files.
- A subject index has been microfilmed as T458 and is available online via Ancestry.com (database title: “U.S., Subject Index to Correspondence and Case Files of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1903–1959”). Relevant subject headings include:
- B.S.I. Minutes
- Board(s) of Special Inquiry
- Boards of Special Inquiry–Designations
- The USCIS Genealogy Program has a name index to this series. If you are looking for a specific individual’s BSI case file, consider requesting a name index search to obtain relevant case file numbers. For more information, please see the USCIS Genealogy Program’s Searching the Index page.
- E, V, and T Files, 1951–1954 (P 777; NAID 6860567)
- Records less than 75 years old are subject to privacy restrictions.
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Register of Japanese Arrivals and Register of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans Detained for Boards of Special Inquiry [District 17, Honolulu], 6/27/1899–6/20/1905 (NAID 2848804)
Transcripts of Board of Special Inquiry Hearings for Chinese Applying for Admission [District 17, Honolulu], 5/20/1904–4/15/1924 (NAID 628481)
Appeal Case Files of Japanese and Korean Aliens Denied Entry by Boards of Special Inquiry [District 17, Honolulu], 1917–1940 (NAID 628461)
Board of Special Inquiry Case Files [District 17, Honolulu], 1925–1929 (NAID 2912190)
Index to Immigration Investigation Case Files [District 17, Honolulu], 1985–1986 (NAID 2902860)
Researching Deportation Records, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry, in A Guide to Interpreting Passenger List Annotations by Marian L. Smith (former historian at the USCIS)
Evolution of the U.S. Immigration Court System: Pre-1983, U.S. Department of Justice