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The Overlooked History of Angel Island, Where the U.S. Enforced Rules Designed to Keep Asian Immigrants Out

8 minute read
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For the last year, Russell Jeung, an Asian American Studies Professor at San Francisco State University, has been tracking the rise in discrimination and harassment facing Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

His work on the database Stop AAPI Hate has made the extent of those recent incidents better known to the general public, but they’re also part of a history that goes much further back than the last year—and for Jeung, that history is personal.

“A lot of what happened in Asian American history, and the exclusionary policies targeting Asian Americans, my family had to endure,” says Jeung, whose family has been in the United States for six generations. Jeung’s grandfather was born in the U.S. but met his grandmother in Hong Kong; when he wanted to bring his wife to join him in his homeland, he needed three white witnesses to submit testimony at the American Railway Express Co. in Monterey, Calif., to confirm he was indeed born in the states. “My family faced exclusion, faced segregation, faced being quarantined, faced being detained, faced being deported, faced being separated, having their family separated by the government.”

Jeung’s family has another link to that history, too: when his grandmother entered the U.S. in the 1920s, it was via Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Few places better illustrate the depth and the details of the Asian American past, and its stories—by turns inspiring and troubling—are key for understanding the present-day challenges faced by Asian Americans, the nation’s fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the first two decades of the 21st century, per April 2021 Pew Research Center data.

Though it’s less frequently discussed in history classes than its New York counterpart, Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was often described as the “Ellis Island of the West”—and it was there that thousands of would-be immigrants of Asian and Mexican descent were turned away, and where life in the U.S. began for the few who did enter.

A history of immigration that includes not only Ellis Island but also Angel Island can provide a better understanding of the complicated subject, and of the long U.S. tradition of welcoming certain—predominantly white—immigrant groups and making others feel unwelcome.

The immigration station created on Angel Island in 1910, which replaced detention prisons on steamships in the San Francisco harbor, became the central enforcement area for rules that were designed to keep people of Asian descent out of the United States. That effort dated back to laws passed in 1862 and 1875 and continued for decades after. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 also led to efforts to keep out Japanese, Korean, Filipino and South Asian laborers, and the 1917 Immigration Act’s Asiatic Barred Zone aimed to deny entry to about 500 million Asians from India, Burma, Siam (now Thailand), Arabia, Afghanistan and most Polynesian islands.

According to historian Erika Lee, co-author of Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America and professor of History at the University of Minnesota, about 20% of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were detained. On average, examinations there took about a day or two and then generally the applicants were permitted to enter the country. Overall, almost everyone who came through Ellis Island (around 98% by some counts) was admitted. By contrast, 60% of the immigrants who arrived at Angel Island—most of whom were Chinese—were detained, and it took weeks or months to be released; the longest detention Lee found was 756 days. Some of the questions that Angel Island officials posed to detainees were meant to stump them, like how many feet were between the home they came from and the house next door. Therefore, those allowed entry to the U.S. tended to be those who had resources and education to handle appeals.

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Poems in Chinese calligraphy on the walls of the barracks today provide a glimpse at what it was like to be detained on Angel Island. One reads, “How was I to know that the western barbarians had lost their hearts and reasons? / With a hundred kinds of oppressive laws, they mistreat us Chinese,” while another reads, “Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day…My freedom withheld; After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow, / Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?”

Among the most heartbreaking stories of detainees is the story of Soto Shee. Eager to be reunited with her husband Lim Lee, whose father was an American citizen, Shee voyaged from Hong Kong to San Francisco just before the 1924 Immigration Act, at which point the law’s enactment led to her being waylaid on Angel Island. Her 7-month-old son Soon Din died while they were in detention, and the body was taken to San Francisco for burial. A lawyer appealed for Shee’s release, but officials denied the request, arguing that they saw “no unusual hardship.” Her request for release got approved only when Shee hung herself in the women’s bathroom in the middle of the night, and her body was discovered and revived. (After her release, Shee went on to raise 10 children in California—including a daughter she was pregnant with on Angel Island—and lived to be 96 years old.)

The suffering was not contained to Angel Island. Vaishno Das Bagai, from present-day Pakistan, came through Angel Island in 1915, became a citizen in 1921 and bought a home in Berkeley, Calif. But when he and his wife Kala tried to move in, they found angry white neighbors waiting to try to stop them. California’s alien land laws forced him to liquidate his home and the store he had opened. And after a 1923 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said South Asians weren’t eligible for citizenship, he and his wife were also stripped of their citizenship. Das Bagai killed himself in 1928, leaving behind a suicide note to his wife Kala and the San Francisco Examiner. “I came to America thinking, dreaming, and hoping to make this land my home,” he wrote. “But now they come and say to me I am no longer an American citizen…Now what am I?…Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind.”

In its 30-year existence, from 1910 to 1940, Angel Island processed about half a million immigrants from 80 countries, people coming to and leaving from the U.S., before it closed when a fire broke out. Over the next 30 years, restrictions to Asian immigration and naturalization slowly loosened. In the 1940s and early 1950s, federal laws allowed South Asian immigrants to become U.S. citizens again, and the Immigration Act of 1965 got rid of a 1920s-era system of discriminatory national origins quotas and replaced it with one based on a set of preferences favoring family members and workers with certain skills, which many still see as unfair.

Though Angel Island is no longer a functioning port of entry, there have been various efforts over the last five decades to make sure that the stories of what happened to detainees are not forgotten. In 1970, the building was slated to be demolished, but Mississippi Freedom Rider-turned-park ranger Alexander Weiss discovered poems written in Chinese calligraphy in the detention barracks. In 1976, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill to fully restore the barracks and preserve the poems. The site opened to visitors in 1983, and since then has been adding to its exhibits. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and a new museum in a rehabbed hospital on the island is expected to open before the end of 2021.

And in February 2021, after efforts by Barnali Ghosh and a group of activists who discovered the story after coming across an oral history interview in the South Asian American Digital Archive, Kala Bagai Way in Berkeley became the city’s first street to be named after an Asian-American woman.

Bagai’s grand-daughter Rani Bagai sees the street sign as justice, cementing South Asians’ place in society and hopes others will be inspired by the resilience of her grandmother, who persevered after her husband’s suicide and went on to send her three sons to college. As she put it to TIME, “It’s a way symbolically of welcoming South Asians, people of Asian heritage, into the fabric of our society.”

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Write to Video by Arpita Aneja at arpita.aneja@time.com and Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com