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Book recalls immigrants who passed through Angel Island

SF Public Press
 — Jan 12 2011 - 12:24pm

To commemorate the centennial of the Angel Island Immigration Station, authors Erika Lee and Judy Yung shed light on the thousands of  immigrants who passed through the “Guardian of the Western Gate” in their recently released book “Angel Island: Gateway to America.”

While more than 70 percent of detainees were from China, others came from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Russia, Mexico and more than 70 other countries, a finding they discovered while examining hundreds of documents that were made public in the National Archives’ collection in San Bruno in the 1990s.

Lee is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and Yung is professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz.

Question: How did researching for this book differ from other books about Angel Island?

JUDY YUNG: I think with the current project, it was hard to find people still alive of any ethnic background who were on Angel Island to interview. But once we found them, I think the ones that I did (interview) … Russians, the Mennonites, the Filipinos, the Japanese picture brides … they weren’t so hesitant to talk about it. They just didn't think about that experience because it had been so much easier for them on Angel Island than the Chinese, so they were quite open to talking about it.

ERIKA LEE: I think that with some of the other immigrant groups, that association with Angel Island is just becoming acknowledged. For some groups, it's a surprising thing and something that's been quite wonderful. And for others, and especially in today's anti-immigrant context, the words "detainee" and "immigration detention" all have a negative stain. Some parts of that immigration story are still being recognized as being shameful.

Q: How did your personal connections to Angel Island lead to this book?

LEE: You know, that personal question always brings us back to the story and it provides a lot of the drive that we have and the commitment to telling the story. But when I was going through these files, several hundreds of these files, I was mostly looking for Chinese, but then every now and then I (would) find another file from another immigrant group and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Q: What were some of the disparities between different ethnic groups?

YUNG: The Chinese were singled out for detention, well they were singled out to be sent to Angel Island to begin with … 76 percent of … the arrivals who were Chinese would be ferried over to Angel Island automatically. They had a much more harsh physical examination as well as interrogation to verify their identities. And their answers were compared to witnesses.

I think what’s interesting when comparing the Chinese versus other Asian immigrants, as well as European immigrants, Latin American immigrants, this pared out because basically they’re enforcing general immigration laws against all groups or specific laws, excluding Chinese, Japanese, Koreans or Asian Indians further down the road.

LEE: The Chinese Exclusion Act was so broadbased, so extensive and put in place so many technologies of immigrant surveillance and interrogation and institutionalized suspicion that it really had a pervasive effect on all Chinese in America.

Q: Were there any other differences?

YUNG: Regardless of your ethnic or racial background, all women were given different treatment. There were certain kinds of gender bias in the law that they were trying to enforce … If you were poor and considered likely to become a public charge, it didn't matter that class base would single you out for exclusion and possible deportation. 

Q: What are some present-day parallels?

LEE: One of the things that we hope that readers will think about when they're thinking about this history of immigration (is) that Angel Island was indeed an immigrant gateway to America. Those people, even those who had a difficult time, who were detained, many of them were able to enter the country. But it was also a place of detention, a place of deportation and when we think about the parallels today, we also want to have people think about how the United States still is a nation of immigrants, how there's still a need for new ideas, people with specific skills and backgrounds, as well as people with little skills to do a lot of the manual labor.

A version of this article was published in the fall 2010 edition of the San Francisco Public Press newspaper. Read select stories online, or buy a copy.