ANGEL ISLAND, Calif. — As he sailed on a ferry to
“It takes every generation of native-born folks to
recognize, you know, there’s something to learn from our own history,”
Fong said. “Because if we don’t know our history, we’re destined to
The friar at Oakland’s St. Elizabeth Catholic Church
was one of about 350 people, nearly all of them Chinese-Americans, who
took a pilgrimage recently to the island’s old immigration station.
They prayed, shared stories and sought to make connections between the
plight of Asian immigrants who faced discrimination a century ago and
the challenges faced by newcomers today.
“I think the challenges are very similar,” Fong
said. “Obviously, the time is different. The circumstances are
different. The nations providing the immigrants are different, but in
many ways we have the same fears, the same anxieties about why these
people are coming and what are we going to do about them.”
Opened in 1910 and closed in 1940, the
station is remembered as a detention center more than as a welcoming
gateway to America. Many Asian ship passengers, subject to strict
exclusionary laws from 1882 until the mid-20th century, were
interrogated and jailed for weeks or months once they reached the
island in the middle of the
Immigration laws of the time allowed just a few Chinese merchants into
the country, but many Chinese laborers tried to come anyway. Some
purchased new identities that would improve their chances of getting
through the island.
Those who made it through faced harsh rhetoric as
local newspapers and political groups railed against them, blaming them
for various social and economic problems.
The organizers of the pilgrimage see parallels
between the inflamed passions over Asians a century ago and the
political climate today for new immigrants.
“The rhetoric is curiously the same to me,” said the Rev.
You could lift some of today’s anti-immigrant signs and slogans, she said, from those targeting Chinese a century ago.
Some Chinese-Americans in the
“I don’t think it has anything to do with race,” said Union City accountant
speaking of today’s immigration policies and debates. “I know there was
discrimination before, in the past. I’m glad that it’s over.”
Ng joined the Golden Gate Minutemen this year,
adding herself to the ranks of a movement determined to stop illegal
crossings of the U.S. border.
“I understand not everybody can come in, but then
again, life is not fair,” Ng said. “We should continue welcoming
immigrants. We just have to do it smart.”
Few polls have asked Chinese-Americans what they
think about contemporary immigration controversies, but those that do
find a community that is split. Chinese-American registered voters in
the right to ask people for documents if they suspect they might be in
the country illegally. About 48 percent of Chinese-American voters
approved of the law and 41 percent disapproved, according to a
California Field Poll taken in July.
About 54 percent of Chinese-American voters in
said the overall effect of illegal immigrants on the state was
unfavorable. Only 29 percent had a favorable opinion about the impact
of illegal immigrants.
“Many Chinese-Americans are struggling, as well,” said
which advocates a moratorium on immigration. “They cannot find work,
especially the younger generation. They have kids out of college who
cannot find work.”
Yeh, who was born in
to Chinese parents, said that leads to frustration about the influx of
low-skilled immigrants, including about 120,000 illegal immigrants from
The debate today is not comparable, she said, with what happened many decades ago.
“Now, there are so many circumstances that warrant
some sort of moratorium,” Yeh said. “It’s not as much of a labor-based
economy. It’s a high-tech economy, which requires less work.”
(c) 2010, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).
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