Face the Nation

Mon March 20th 2023, 12:30 - 1:20pm
Event Sponsor
Department of Anthropology
Anthropology Colloquium Room
Building 50, Room 50-51A


In this presentation, I trace the long durée of facial recognition and its use for border enforcement in the United States. I argue that this history should begin with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law which severely restricted immigration from China to the United States. To enforce the Exclusion Act, the U.S. government issued identity certificates to regulate which Chinese people were allowed to enter the country. More than 40 years before photographs were included in passports for U.S. citizens, the Chinese registration certificates were the first form of photo ID ever issued by the U.S. government.  

Drawing from original case files stored in the Immigration and Naturalization Service archives, historical newspapers, and Congressional hearings, I describe how racialized assumptions about the indistinguishability of Chinese migrants (i.e., that they “all looked the same”) motivated the introduction of detailed technologies for recording immigrant faces. Furthermore, I demonstrate the Bureau of Immigration’s forensic method for comparing photographs – which I understand as an early form of facial recognition.