Comprehensive volume counters the notion of a welcoming nation



By Erika Lee and Judy Yung. (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010, 432 pp., $27.95, hard cover)

Erika Lee and Judy Yung, both well known and respected in their own right as accomplished historians, have combined their research skills and writing talents in producing the most comprehensive and timely work on Angel Island. As the nation is in the major throes of virulent xenophobia and racism, Lee and Yung’s seminal work on Angel Island is a reminder that more than 100 years ago this nation was involved in an outbreak of similar xenophobia and racism against first the Chinese and then other Asians who came from a “different shore.”

Many who are familiar with the Asian American experience have often referred to Angel Island as the “Ellis Island of the West.” The problem with that analogy and the grand narrative perpetuating America as a welcoming nation made up of immigrants is that is only part of the story. Lee and Yung, through the use of oral histories and meticulous archival research that boggles the mind, have uncovered, examined, and now present a much deeper and broader picture of the immigration experience from a West Coast perspective, thereby complicating the celebratory image of America as welcoming of all immigrants. While it is true that the overwhelming number of immigrants were processed through Ellis Island (12,000,000 vs. 500,000) as opposed to Angel Island; it is equally true that those entering through Angel Island were treated differently.

Moreover, this work is important because Lee and Yung bring to light various immigration and naturalization polices aimed primarily at Asians in America which, for the most part, have been left out of the educational mainstream thereby creating a misleading notion that America has always welcomed the “…tried, … poor, and … huddled masses, yearning to breathe free….” In fact, Angel Island was established in 1910 to initially ferret out Chinese with false documents. The Chinese used this method to navigate around the first immigration law ever passed by the United States in 1882, excluding them based on race and occupation as well as denying them citizenship.

While the Chinese were the largest group and suffered the most on Angel Island, this study also expands the immigration story on the West Coast. “Angel Island” is also about the diversity of other immigrants who passed through this gate keeping facility. The authors tell the stories of Japanese picture brides, South Asians, Filipino nationals who became “aliens,” Koreans without a country, Russians, Jews, other Europeans and even those who journeyed to “El Norte” by sea. This book is much more than a Chinese American story but an American story in all its complexities, ironies and contradictions.

If there is a shortcoming to this study, it is that authors never “connected the dots” to the Progressives who were at the center of the eugenics movement, an emerging insidious movement with an ideology that influenced much of the immigration and naturalization laws at the beginning of the 20th century and was taken to the ultimate extreme in the “final solution” in Europe. Moreover, what is missing in this national “conversation” around immigration (whether Ellis Island or Angel Island) is that “who” the tired, poor, and huddled masses were mattered, and the lenses of eugenics were used in both places to determine who got in and who were sent back.

Nevertheless, if we are to avoid the virulent xenophobia and racism of the past and begin to engage in a civil and educated discourse of issues like “comprehensive immigration reform,” “cheap labor,” “illegal,” “amnesty,” then “Angel Island” is not only a timely but a must-read book.

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