Origins are unknown, but definitely predate the use of metal flashlights, contrary to the most quoted description of origin.
It's probable that the origin is related to Chinese immigration, as the first law to restrict immigration from a particular country was enacted in 1882 to limit the numbers of Chinese coming to the United States. It's said that many of the illegal immigrants made their way to the US via the Gulf of Tonkin area of what is now Vietnam. It's also possible that the term is related to the Chinese "tong" mob.
An alternative definition is that it's an acronym for Travelling Outside Native [C]ountry or Traveler: Origin Not Known.
tonk (plural tonks)
- (slang) Term used, primarily by US immigration officials in informal settings, to describe an illegal immigrant of any country.
- 1990: United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary, Confirmation Hearings on Federal Appointments: Hearings Before the Committee - An agent, Larry Moy, when asked to define the derivation of the term “tonk,” replied: “...it's the sound of flashlight hitting somebody's head, tonk". [This "derivation" is incorrect - see Etymology]
- 1998: Cirenio Rodriguez & Enrique T Trueba, Leadership, education and political action, in Ethnic Identity and Power: Cultural Contexts of Political Action in School and Society - "Catch as many tonks as you guys can. Safely. An alien is not worth busting a leg."
- 2005: EMF (poster on The QandO Blog in response to Illegal immigration made easy, read at [] on 27 May 2006) - The pissed off Arizona land owner who snipes the tonks with a high powered rifle.
- (slang) An item of value, or of perceived value, especially for sale
- How much tonk have we got to shift? etym. uncertain.