Uncommon people / Judy Yung: Angel Island Centennial teaches important lessons

At 100, the "Ellis Island of the West" shows us that immigration reform is needed now.

(Photo by Jim MacKenzie)

January 21, 2010, marked the centen­nial of the Angel Island Immigration Station, popularly known as the "Ellis Island of the West." But to the thou­sands of Chinese immigrants who were detained there for weeks and months to undergo harsh examinations, and to ap­peal exclusion decisions, Angel Island was nothing more than a prison.

This place is called an island of im­mortals,

When, in fact, this moun­tain wilderness is a prison.

Once you see the open net, why throw yourself in?

It is only because of empty pockets I can do nothing else.

This Chinese poem that was found carved into the immigration barrack walls remind us that unlike Ellis Island, which restricted but did not exclude European immigrants to this country, Angel Island was built spe­cifically to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to keep Chinese laborers out of the country. The first racial group to be excluded by U.S. law, Chinese like my own father, Tom Yip Jing, were the first "illegal immigrants." To circumvent the exclusion laws, he assumed a false identity. Once admitted into the country, my father had to live a life of deceit and duplicity, under constant fear of deportation.

Today, immigration is still a complicated and contentious matter, as we debate over who to let in and who to keep out, and what to do with the 11 million undocu­mented immigrants in the country. Last April, Arizona passed the toughest immi­gration law in decades, authorizing local police to arrest and detain suspected "il­legal immigrants" and requiring aliens to carry immigration documents with them at all times.

How does this anti-immigrant trend jibe with the popular view of America as a "nation of immigrants" that welcomes "the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?" The Angel Island story tells us that the United States has always had a complicated relationship with immigration, including some and ex­cluding others. While many Asian immi­grants were denied entry at Angel Island because of race- and class-biased exclusion laws, thousands of newcomers from Asian, European, and Latin American countries were admitted, allowed to settle and even­tually become U.S. citizens. Like other immigrants before them, they went on to help make America the powerful and rich country it is today.

In 1965, Congress passed new immigra­tion legislation that put every race and nation on an equal footing. However, years of lax enforcement of our immigra­tion laws, backlogs and bureaucracy, and inadequate work visas to meet the needs of a global economy have resulted in a vast population of undocumented immi­grants, all forced to live in the shadows.

As we commemorate the 100th anni­versary of the Angel Island Immigration Station, let us remember its multira­cial history of inclusion and exclusion. Discriminatory and unfair immigration laws have harsh and deep repercussions on the lives of people. Conversely, fair immigration policies that uphold our val­ues as a nation of immigrants have led to beneficial gains for the entire society.

More than ever before, our country needs comprehensive immigration reform that will secure our borders, benefit our econ­omy, and provide a pathway to respon­sible citizenship for those undocumented immigrants who deserve it.

Judy Yung is a professor emerita of American studies. She co-authored Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America with historian Erika Lee.