Erika Lee is an associate professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota and Judy Yung is a professor emerita of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Their most recent co-written book, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, has just been released and we were able to get them to answer a few questions during a break on their long book tour.
Go to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website for a list of their tour stops.
Erika Lee - EL
Judy Yung - JY
What inspired you to write Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America? Do you have any family background that encouraged you to write this book?
EL: I am the granddaughter of immigrants who came through both Angel Island and Ellis Island. This personal connection has made me committed to telling the Angel Island story to a broader audience. But as an immigration historian, I also recognize that Angel Island is one of the most important sites where America's immigration history was made.
JY: My father was detained on Angel Island for two months in 1921 and refused to talk about it until fifty years later when I began working with Him Mark Lai and Genny Lim on my first book, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910 to 1940. Since the publication of that book in 1980, many scholars, community activists, and preservationists have called attention to the greater diversity of immigrants on Angel Island. So when the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation expressed interest in a centennial book that would provide a comprehensive history of the many immigrant groups that passed through Angel Island, I felt the time was right for me to revisit the subject and write a new multicultural history of Angel Island as a site of conscience and reconciliation for all Americans.
What were some of the difficulties you both faced while working on this book?
EL: Until recently, the literature on Angel Island has centered almost exclusively on the Chinese immigrant experience. This has made sense in many ways. As the main port of entry for Chinese immigrants applying for admission into the United States, the Angel Island Immigration Station was largely built to fulfill the country's need to enforce the Chinese exclusion laws.
As important as the Chinese immigrant experience on Angel Island is, there are many more immigrant stories that need to be recovered and preserved. The Angel Island Immigration Station was a global crossroads. The challenge for us was finding the immigration histories of all of these other groups.
JY: Because we wanted to include and compare the experiences of the various immigrant groups on Angel Island, of which little had been written and few immigrants were still alive to be interviewed, we had difficulties finding sources, dealing with multilingual research materials, and learning about the immigration history of people who had come to Angel Island from eighty countries around the world.
The research for this book was monumental and we were fortunate to have the help of many research assistants, volunteers, and families who had a personal connection to Angel Island (see the acknowledgements in our book). Equally difficult was sharing the analysis and writing of the book. Somehow, between the two of us, we found a way to split up the work by chapters, to thread the larger themes throughout the book (inclusion and exclusion; race, class, and gender discrimination; America's complicated relationship to immigration; and the real impact of U.S. immigration policies on the lives of immigrants at Angel Island and beyond) and to write in a compatible narrative style.
Being historians that have already done prior research on Angel Island, what were some of the most interesting things that you learned in doing your research this time?
We interviewed Angel Island immigrants and their families. We combed through newspapers, letters, and published accounts. We searched through thousands of immigration files at the National Archives in San Bruno, CA, which holds a treasure trove of immigration documents, statistics, correspondence, and 70,000 case files of immigrants who were detained on Angel Island.
These historical records told us that many immigrants were admitted, but some were turned back or detained for months to await decisions on their legal appeals. Still others were arrested and deported after being admitted into the country.
What struck us most in all of our research was the diversity of immigrant experiences on Angel Island. Half a million people came through the immigration station, but their experiences were so different. That was because until 1965, U.S. immigration policies treated individuals differently according to their race, class, gender, and nationality. Immigration laws targeted some groups (Asians, poor, anarchists, contract laborers, criminals, and illiterates) for exclusion and others for restriction (Southern and Eastern Europeans) while others were treated as privileged classes (the wealthy, Northern and Western Europeans). We found that men and women were treated differently, as were people of different classes, but race was the most important factor shaping different immigration laws and immigrant experiences on the island.
We also discovered that immigrants also reacted to their detentions on Angel Island in different ways. The Chinese wrote poetry to express their anger and frustrations. They also hired lawyers who were quite successful in appealing their cases. Korean, Russian, and Jewish refugees relied upon a network of religious and ethnic organizations for assistance and support. The Japanese depended on their home government to protest any unfair treatment. Because South Asians lacked these resources, they had the highest rejection and deportation rate of all immigrant groups.
What do you hope people will get from reading your book?
Angel Island complicates and challenges the celebratory history of American immigration that focuses only on European immigrants coming through Ellis Island and achieving the American Dream.
Angel Island was certainly a gateway into America, and Angel Island immigrants helped reinforce the ideal that the United States is a "nation of immigrants," a mighty nation built by immigrants. But the poems carved into the barrack walls of Angel Island and former detainees' stories of unjust treatment at the immigration station force us to also confront America's history of immigration restriction and discriminatory immigration laws.
As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Angel Island Immigration Station, we need to remember the lessons and legacy of 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 often led to beneficial gains for the entire society.
What are the differences and similarities facing immigrants that came through Angel Island and those today?
Angel Island was important in its own time, and it remains vitally important today, when debates over immigration and race continue to divide the country. Immigrant detention is the fastest form of incarceration in the country. In 2008 alone, 407,000 immigrants - mostly U.S. residents - were detained by the U.S. government under deplorable conditions, with incarceration periods that ranged from 37 days to 10 months. Compare this to the 300,000 immigrants who were detained at Angel Island in its entire thirty-year history, with an average detention period of two to three weeks for the Chinese, and we know that the treatment of immigrants have gotten worse rather than better.
What do you think of the recent immigration policies being discussed?
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 at all times. Some Republican Senators are even proposing that the U.S. Constitution be changed to deny birthright citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants. Americans are generally in an anti-immigrant mood. We've seen this before. Anti-immigrant sentiment often flares up during times of economic recession.
Both political parties agree that the current immigration system is broken. But they cannot agree on how to fix it. Efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform (secure borders, reform visas system, legalize undocumented immigrants) failed under President Bush in 2007. In the absence of federal legislation, state legislatures stepped in, adopting 206 anti-immigrant laws in 2008 alone.
President Obama has pledged to tackle immigration reform this year, and his ideas are sound. In his major speech on immigration in July, he said, "Our task then is to make our national laws actually work - to shape a system that reflects our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants." Immigration reform needs to happen, but the President has a tough road ahead of him.
Why do you care so much about the issue of immigration and why should all Americans care?
We have always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants, a nation that welcomes "the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free." And from these huddled masses have come hard-working and talented immigrants who have helped to make America what it is today.
As we try to show through our book, Angel Island represents both the best and worst of American immigration history. It is the story of men, women, and children who crossed the Pacific Ocean and traveled north from South America to establish new lives in the United States. It is also the story of harsh and discriminatory immigration laws and of immigrant perseverance. And it is a story of a place that became a gateway to America, forever changing the lives of immigrants and America itself.
What is your next book project?
EL: I am working on a sweeping transnational history of Asians in the Americas. It is a fascinating history that begins with the Manila galleon trade that brought Chinese and Filipinos to New Spain in the sixteenth century and follows the migrations of Chinese and South Asian coolies to the Caribbean, and Asian laborers, merchants, and families to North and South America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
JY: I will be turning my attention to finishing Him Mark Lai's autobiography with Ruthanne Lum McCunn and Russell Leong.