April - June 2010 | By Jane Leung Larson
The sensitive issue of unwelcome immigrants crossing our borders resonates in American society today just as it did a century ago when the Angel Island Immigration Station opened in San Francisco Bay to process Pacific immigrants, most of them Chinese who sought to live and work in the U.S. in spite of the highly restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act. Today most Chinese Americans are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants, and the immigration experience continues to be an important part of family stories.
At the San Francisco conference, two Angel Island descendants reflected on how little we know about the story of Chinese immigration to America--Lawrence Low, Chief Legal Officer, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, and Buck Gee, President of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation—and how that story contains lessons for today. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown moderated a panel including three Asian American politicians and prompted their candid remarks on how the immigration issue has affected their campaigns and political careers. Even the short conversation between Internet magnates Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!, and Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube, veered to their similar paths as childhood immigrants from Taiwan to the U.S. (via the same Taiwanese elementary school) and their strikingly early success. [See “Reflections: Chinese American Innovation” here.]
Jerry Yang and Steve Chen.
But, immigration continues to be a touchy subject, even for second and third generation Chinese Americans like Low and Gee whose grandfathers or fathers came to the U.S. as “paper sons,” posing as the children of American citizens to pass Angel Island’s rigorous interrogation process. These paper sons kept quiet about their immigration experience, fearing getting themselves or their relatives in trouble. Gee said that he found his father’s coaching book while cleaning out his father’s house after his death and said, “I’m an American-born son of illegal immigrants.” Low said both his grandfathers were paper sons and that his real surname was probably Wong.
Gee explained that Angel Island Immigration Station was built to accommodate increased Chinese immigration after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The earthquake destroyed the Hall of Records and made it possible for the thousands of Chinese living in the U.S. to obtain new papers showing them to be American-born citizens and creating a new business of selling “paper son” slots to prospective immigrants, who could take on new identities and evade Chinese Exclusion laws.
Of the 1 million Pacific Rim immigrants coming to Angel Island from 1910 to 1940, most were Chinese, and all were detained for extensive questioning before being admitted or deported, a very different experience than Europeans entering via Ellis Island. Gee, who was an executive at Cisco Systems and other high-tech companies before taking on leadership of the Angel Island foundation, said looking back on the sufferings of Chinese under the Exclusion laws, he concluded that immigrants should be treated humanely and with respect, and that we need to work out a way for those who have lived here for a long while to become citizens.
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Representative Judy Chu, and President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors David Chiu.
Humane treatment of immigrants was a goal cited by the three Asian American politicians, whose constituencies include people on all sides of the immigration debate. Representative Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to the U.S. Congress and active in Monterey Park and California politics, said that immigration has been a touchstone of her political life. She first got involved in politics through opposition to the English-only movement in Monterey Park, which was directed to the growing Chinese population there. In Congress she sits on the Immigration Subcommittee and is a co-sponsor of the comprehensive immigration bill. “Our nation is polarized. Some scapegoat immigrants for our problems.” Chu says she doesn’t ignore those in her district who are anti-immigrant, but tries to find another way to reach them, through jobs or transportation programs, for example.
David Chiu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the “first kid in my family born in the U.S.,” said that he feels it’s his responsibility “to remind others that we are a country of immigrants” and that now more than ever it is important to reach across ethnic lines and build coalitions rather than pit one minority against another.
California State Assemblyman Van Tran said that “race and politics are inextricably linked because we’re not a color-blind society.” As a first-generation immigrant who arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam 35 years ago with two words of English, Tran entered politics by focusing on voter registration of Asian American immigrants. He runs a dual campaign, one component geared to Asian Americans who make up the bulk of donors, and the other to the mainstream community. The first Asian American to be elected to the legislature from Orange County, Tran says, “I do play a special role as educator.”