Return to Angel Island

2 min

Angel Island graces San Francisco Bay, but its buildings house one of the darkest times in American immigration history, when Chinese, even Chinese American citizens, were subjected to harsh discrimination. Larry Jin Lee has this Perspective.

I have not been on Angel Island since I was a teenager and a visit was long overdue. But I was not fully aware back then of the historical significance of Angel Island to my family. My great grandfather and grandfather were detained there several times even though they were U.S. citizens.

Angel Island, unlike Ellis Island, was not built to welcome tired and poor huddled masses but to reject as many Chinese immigrants as possible. Many had long forced stays. There were hysterical fears of Chinese at the time, and, yes, the term invasion was often invoked, fomenting anger and scapegoating them for depressing wages.
Thus, the first federal immigration law was also the first directed at a single racial group — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chinese American citizens could be deported. All skilled and unskilled laborers were systematically excluded.

Upon docking, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for my grandfather, 12 at the time. He’d have to face an arduous interrogation of very detailed questions such as, the exact location of a village neighbor’s house, or where the clock was in his home. A wrong answer could get him deported. He succeeded and  he got to San Francisco to live with his father, whom he barely knew, because the laws made long separations of men from their families the norm.

As I walked past the carved poems on the barrack walls in the museum, I could almost hear the pained voices of the words “brutal injustice”, “despotic acts.” I peered out of a window at a residential barracks, half of one glass pane was clear where I could see San Francisco and the other half, the view was fogged up and blurred, a perfect metaphor of the immigrant’s destiny, one who is allowed onto this country’s shore and the other whose hopes and dreams are lost in the fog of the bay, so close only to be turned away.

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It is chilling and sad to see the clear parallels with what we are witnessing today at the U.S.-Mexican border. I remember the pained anguish in my grandfather’s eyes when he told me about his time there, over 70 years later, as if it were yesterday.

I think the ghosts of Angel Island are crying once again.

With a Perspective, I’m Larry Jin Lee.

Larry Jin Lee is a psychotherapist and father of two. He lives in San Francisco.

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