Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Immigrants from the East Arrived on the West

Being a nation of immigrants has long been a point of controversy for the United States. The idea of immigrants overcoming discrimination and hardship to achieve the American dream, however, is generally dear to the hearts of most Americans. Unsurprisingly, stories of struggling immigrants coming to the United States and arriving on Ellis Island are cherished. Stories of those arriving from the opposite side of the country, though, are less heard. Europeans arrived from the Atlantic Ocean, but Asians arrived from the Pacific and they ended up in Ellis’ counterpoint: Angel Island.


Poetry carved onto the walls of detention barracks at Angel Island

(Photo: Preservation Nation Blog)

In 1970, Chinese poetry carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station saved it from destruction. After these carvings were found, Bay Area Asian Americans formed the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) and began a long journey that led to the restoration of the station and its opening to the public in 1983. Today, AIISF’s mission is to continue preserving the site and educate the public about the role of the Pacific Rim immigration in U.S. history.


Immigrants arrive on Angel Island

Asian immigration into the U.S. began in the 1850s, when young single men were recruited as laborers. The recruitment was so extensively that, by 1870, the Chinese represented 20% of California’s labor force. But the 1876 depression changed the attitudes towards these workers so strongly that Congress eventually passed the only U.S. law to ever restrict immigration and naturalization on the basis of race. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act would restrict Chinese immigration for the next sixty years.

Thirty years after the Act’s inception, a national system had formed specifically targeting Asian immigration. Immigration officials developed a new facility on Angel Island, the largest island in the San Francisco Bay, isolating immigrants from the mainland. Men were separated from women. People were put through humiliating medical exams and harsh interrogations that required immigrants to remember minute details of their lives, such as how many steps were in front of their home. Until they were approved, immigrants suffered long waits on Angel Island, which could span from weeks, months, to years.


An aerial view of Angel Island

The AIISF hopes to make this part of U.S. history better known and to give voices to the immigrants that faced such conditions. In this effort, it has created a forum where people can read the personal stories and those of friends and family that went through Angel Island. The stories span from immigrants arriving in the early 20th century, like that of Japanese-born Kaoru Okawa who arrived in 1919 to more recent arrivals like that of Sri-Lankan born Kumar Emayan, who arrived in 1997. What may be the most empowering work the organization has done, though, may be allowing readers to submit their own stories. Visit their website to find out how people can share their own stories.

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