Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How Angel Island, 105 Years Later, is an Opportunity for Educators




The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

This week marks the 105th anniversary of the opening of Angel Island which is often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West.”  Most textbooks don’t explore Angel Island, the Chinese Exclusion Act, or detention.  Those units or chapters that do exist often don’t look at immigration from a point of view other than the slice of history which brought millions of Europeans through Ellis Island.  The reality is that there were processing stations all over the United States and for over thirty years the Angel Island Immigration Station processed approximately 1 million Asian immigrants entering into the US.  Unlike many of the other processing stations, Angel Island also served as a detention center.  Due to the restrictions of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, many Chinese immigrants spent years on the island, waiting for entry. When Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it froze the size of the Chinese immigrant population in the country.  No new Chinese, except for a select few, including scholars and diplomats, were allowed into the country. Those already here were largely barred from citizenship. The act effectively blocked Chinese men who had immigrated during the Gold Rush and the railroad boom of the late 19th century from reuniting with their families.  

According to KQED, the exact number of immigrants who passed through Angel Island is unknown. In addition to being a detention site, the station was also an administrative site. As such, it processed the paperwork for all people coming into and leaving the United States, and not just for those who spent time at the site. Current estimates put the figure of actual immigrants who passed through the Station at about 300,000. Comparatively, Ellis Island received about 12 million throughout the time of its operation. Of those who arrived at Angel Island, it is estimated that anywhere from 11 percent to 30 percent were ultimately deported, whereas the deportation rate for the East Coast was only 1 percent to 2 percent.

The American Immigration Council’s Special Report discusses the parallels of the Chinese Exclusion Act and current immigration issues:
The United States, a country that prides itself on being a land of immigrants, historically has a mixed record towards immigrants of color, particularly Asian immigrants. In the decades before the Civil War, the nation was expanding westward and needed laborers for railroad building, mining, construction, logging, and fishing. These laborers were often Chinese (who comprised 20 percent of California’s labor force by 1870 even though they constituted only .002 percent of the entire U.S. population) or Asian Indians, followed by waves of Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos. These migrations were propelled by the California Gold Rush of 1848, as well as U.S. expansion into the Hawaiian Islands. Speaking languages other than those of Europe, with very different cultures and traditions, Asians a century ago confronted the same fear and anger that Mexican immigrants often face today.

Educators who want to discuss Angel Island and detention often find that starting the discussion with poetry that was left by detainees is an amazing conversation starter.  While waiting for entry into the United States, many of those at Angel Island began carving poetry into the walls of their barracks. Officers of the station puttied over the walls as many as seven times between 1910 and 1940 to cover over the poetry. The Angel Island: Poetic Waves site is interactive and includes a sampling of these poems as well as a timeline, personal immigration stories, and a virtual tour of the facility with complete audio in both English and Chinese.  

Primary sources are a great way to tell the story of Angel Island and achieve Common Core alignment. Actor and comedian Byron Yee has put together a fascinating collection that tells the story of his family and their navigation around America’s discrimination of the Chinese.  The bypass many Chinese took to immigrate to the United States during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act was known as “Paper Sons.”  A “Paper Son” was the term coined for young Chinese males coming into the United States stewarded by an American citizen of Chinese descent who traveled back to China, and upon return, claimed to have had a wife and sons.   These “sons” were really only sons in paper only, and so known as “Paper Sons”.  Yee also highlights another strategy many Chinese took after immigration and birth records were destroyed in municipal buildings during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which was to claim natural born US citizenship.  

The Council’s 2011 Celebrate America Creative Writing Contest Winner wrote a poem about her great-grandfather, a Chinese immigrant who was able to avoid detention and cross the country looking for acceptance and opportunity.  Additionally, elementary school students will enjoy reading Paper Son: Lee's Journey to America, an Amazon Best Children's Books of 2014, which chronicles the story of twelve-year old Lee’s immigration from China to the US as a “paper son” with beautiful illustrations.

The anniversary of Angel Island Immigration Station is an opportunity for educators to teach about the fears, uncertainties, and dreams accompanying not only immigrants, but the US, who receives them.



Correction:

In our original post above, we stated that “current estimates put the figure of actual immigrants who passed through the Station at about 300,000. Comparatively, Ellis Island received about 12 million throughout the time of its operation. Of those who arrived at Angel Island, it is estimated that anywhere from 11% to 30% were ultimately deported." 

We meant to refer to the percentage of people denied entry at Angel Island, not deported and will point out this distinction to our source.  According to Dr. Erika Lee, Professor and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, who kindly noted this error to us, the number of those persons denied entry is 5% with varying rates according to nationality (a low of 1 percent for Japanese immigrants and a high of 25% for South Asians).  For comparison purposes, Ellis Island processed 12 million people, 10% were detained (usually for a few days for legal or medical reasons), and 2% were deported in the end.

In 2012, Dr. Lee and her co-author, Dr. Judy Yung, published a paperback edition of Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, another comprehensive resource for educators and lay readers which includes updated research, immigration records, and oral histories, among other essential components to tell the stories of those who lived through it.  In their book, they clarify the term deportation and its varying usage: “Deportation refers to the removal of aliens already in the United States.  Immigration officials referred to deporting both foreigners residing in the United States and applicants for admission who had been denied entry.  We use deportation to describe both the official action of barring applicants for admission and returning them to their port of embarkation and the removal or expulsion of immigrants residing in this country.” (xxii)