Jade Cages: Visiting Angel Island

I’m standing in the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island, one of our nation’s first immigration detention centers. Growing up on the east coast of the United States, I hadn’t even heard of Angel Island until I decided to write my undergraduate history thesis on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In a way, the history of this island I have never visited before now is tied up with my own history — it was spending a year researching that thesis, burying myself in primary sources that echoed today’s rhetoric about Latin American immigrants, that started me on the path to advocate for immigrants.

The U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay, operated from 1910 to 1940 and is frequently called the “Ellis Island of the West,” after the historic immigration hub off the shores of New York City.

This is a misnomer. The Ellis Island Immigration Station was a speed bump for white Europeans to come to the United States. Angel Island was a detention center designed to implement legislation to actively prevent non-white immigrants from coming to the country. At Ellis Island, 80 per cent of the mostly European applicants who arrived by ship passed through to the ferries that transported them across to Manhattan or Jersey City. According to historians Erika Lee and Judy Yung, only 10 per cent were detained for legal reasons and another 10 per cent for medical treatment. Most only stayed a night, maybe a few days or at most a few weeks — including those receiving medical treatment.

Photo by Amy Grenier

Immigration detention barracks at Angel Island – Photos by Amy Grenier

On the other side of the country, Chinese immigrants made up 70 per cent of the detained population on Angel Island and their stay averaged two to three weeks, longer than any other immigrant racial group processed on the island. A Chinese woman named Quok Shee held the record: she was detained on Angel Island from September, 1916 to August, 1918. The conditions on the island were not humane. According to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, the mostly Chinese detainees were “… under lock and key 24 hours a day, the barracks had been deemed by public health officials to be a firetrap, the food was barely edible, recreation or time allowed outside was limited.”

Only 38 per cent of non-Asians were even subject to being processed and thus detained on Angel Island. A 1922 San Francisco Chronicle article highlighted the complaints of Australian detainees who found the conditions intolerable: “The immigration station was designed to receive Orientals” and, in response to the Australian complaints about the conditions of Angel Island, suggested “that immigration officials offer ‘better accommodations’ for white immigrants.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the process of immigrating to the United States in the early twentieth century was screened by racism. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first instance of outright exclusion of a specific group of people in the history of United States immigration policy; this act and its successors shaped the immigration regulatory structure of the time. The Exclusion Act passed in a political environment in which the exclusion of Chinese migrant laborers was seen as a way to solve the economic woes of the white working class within the context of what was then the greatest economic recession of American history. This may sound familiar — as my colleague Stacy Jones recently wrote, “The myth that ‘illegal immigrants’ steal American jobs and lower Americans’ wages persists to this day, though generally in relation to undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America rather than from Asia.”

Photo by Amy Grenier

Poetry on the barracks walls

As you walk through Angel Island today, the impact of detention on the Chinese detainees is hard to ignore – it is written on the very walls that once held them. Over 200 poems are inscribed on the walls, ironically preserved in part by efforts to of administrators to putty in the engravings and paint over the “graffiti.” The poems at times are faint, covered by paint (the walls used to be green and were painted blue and yellow in the 1940s) but they are poignant, even if you cannot read the characters themselves.

Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,

My freedom withheld; how can I bear to walk about it?

The days are long and the bottle constantly empty; my sad mood, even so, is not dispelled.

Nights are long, and the pillow cold; who can pity my loneliness?”

— Poem from the barracks walls, reprinted by Ronald Takaki.

I clasped my hands in parting with my brothers and classmates.

Because of the mouth, I hastened to cross the American ocean.

How was I to know that the western barbarians had lost their hearts and reason

With a hundred kinds of oppressive laws, they mistreat us Chinese.”

— Poem carved on the barracks walls, reprinted by Lee and Young

The State Park has recreated the detainees’ bunks to a certain extent, hinting at the overcrowded state of the dormitories in the early twentieth century. But what is truly a limited, priceless resource are the volunteer guides. Both my guide and his wife were descended from Chinese who were detained at Angel Island. In his case, his mother — an American citizen — was still required to go through the detention and screening due to her race and subsequent suspicions about her immigration status.

Today, while the United States may no longer have the Chinese Exclusion Act, it does have a mandate to maintain 34,000 beds for the detention of immigrants. While Angel Island held hundreds of detainees at any given time, today we detain somewhere between 31,000 and 34,000 immigrants daily, at the cost to the American taxpayer of $5.05 million a day.

Photo by Amy Grenier

Original womens’ barracks

The conditions may have improved in the past one hundred years, but the facilities where we detain immigrants today remain prisons. Recently, Olivia Lopez, a social worker who used to work at the Karnes detention facility in Texas, came forward to testify on the conditions at a facility.

In an interview, Lopez said, “I walked in and thought ‘Oh my Lord, this is really a prison’… While there were state-of-the-art medical equipment and recreational activities for both mothers and children, the detainees were always locked up … They know they’re in prison. They know they can’t leave.” Lopez also spoke of “young children who regressed developmentally” and “detainees who were placed in isolation for speaking out.”

To anyone who has read the research or visited an immigration detention facility, this testimony is no surprise. Mark Noferi, formerly of the American Immigration Council, argued based on extensive research that “the adverse impacts of detention upon the vulnerable population of asylum seekers are widely recognized and documented, and include psychological harm, interference with access to legal assistance, and even abandonment of legitimate asylum claims.”

Modern evidence, modern arguments, modern research, echoing a poem carved on the walls of Angel Island by an unknown author — “Even if it is built of jade it has turned into a cage.” It’s hard not to wonder, if today’s detained immigrants could carve into concrete, what their poetry would say; and if their descendants will volunteer to guide tourists through the cells telling the story of our problematic history of detaining immigrants.

Further Reading

Erika Lee & Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America.

Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, Updated and Revised Edition.

Amy R. Grenier (unpublished undergraduate thesis, 2008), The Economic and Political Context of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

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