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From The Asian Reporter, V20, #24 (September 20, 2010), page 11 &
Book explores history of Angel Island Immigration Station
Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America
By Erika Lee & Judy Yung
Oxford University Press, 2010
Hardcover, 394 pages, $27.95
By Julie Stegeman
The United States has always had a very complicated relationship to immigration," says Judy Yung, professor emerita of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-author of Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. "Not all immigrants have been welcomed to this country and not all immigrants have realized the American Dream."
Published to commemorate the Angel Island immigration station’s 100th anniversary, Angel Island tells the story of the "Ellis Island of the West," which from 1910 to 1940 was the main Pacific gateway into and out of the United States, with around a half a million people passing through as they entered or departed the country. The station was the chief entryway for Chinese arriving in the United States.
Yung and co-author Erika Lee both have family ties to the Angel Island immigration station: Yung’s father entered the country there in 1921 and Lee’s grandfather in 1918. With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented the immigration of Chinese laborers, in force during the immigration station’s operative years, the two men — like many other Chinese immigrants at the time — illegally entered the country as "paper sons," using false identities, false relationships, and false documents. "The first to be restricted, the Chinese were also the first illegal immigrants," says Yung.
The book presents a meticulously researched history of Angel Island, illuminating the past with accounts of immigrants who passed through the station and the varying treatment they received, garnered from oral histories, writings, immigration records, and more. Photographs and writings of immigrants found throughout the book make their histories even more vivid and interesting for readers.
According to Angel Island, "Those seeking entry to the United States confronted U.S. immigration policies that treated immigrants differently based on the race, nationality, gender, and class." It goes on to cite numerous examples, focusing mainly on the experiences of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South Asian, Russian, Mexican, and Filipino immigrants. The book also details the impact of various immigration laws, how American current events — such as the Great Depression, World War I, and the independence of the Philippines — shaped immigration policies and experiences, and the legacy of Angel Island.
While the book is full of interesting accounts of the receptions immigrants from all over the world received at Angel Island, Young and Lee’s depiction of the experiences of Chinese immigrants, who had the longest average detention times, are particularly compelling due to the extreme and creative measures they employed to enter the country and the hardships they endured while detained at the immigration station.
The book states: "Both former detainees and immigration officials estimated that 90 percent of all Chinese had false papers." These Chinese would claim to be in categories exempt from the exclusion laws, such as merchants or U.S.-born citizens, or their children ("paper sons"). For example, a Chinese merchant could claim more children than he actually had, then sell those identities to prospective immigrants.
Conditions for the Chinese awaiting decisions on their immigration status were crowded and the food — which was reluctantly paid for by the steamship companies who provided passage for the potential immigrants — was poor. The Chinese quarters were segregated from other immigrants, and women and men were housed separately. According to Angel Island, even after being admitted to the U.S., the Chinese couldn’t relax as they "lived their lives in the shadows, anxious about their immigration status, harassment by immigration officials, and personal safety."
The experience of the Chinese brings up the question of whether they were justified in entering the country illegally because of the unjust and discriminatory immigration laws. At an author event held earlier this month in Portland, Judy Yung gave her answer: "The way I figure it, the Chinese in particular were smart enough to figure out a legal way to come illegally," she said.
Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America is a powerful tool for understanding America’s past and present relationship to immigration, a topic which remains very volatile. As stated in the book, "Remembering both sides of this complex history helps us recognize what is still great about the United States and what remains to be done to fulfill America’s promise as a nation of immigrants."
To learn more about the book or the Angel Island Immigration Station, visit <www.aiisf.org>.