‘Historical insight into the management of marginalized aliens’



By Anna Pegler-Gordon (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021, 344 pp., $29.95, paperback)

Anna Pegler-Gordon’s new book centers on the mythic immigration station at New York’s Ellis Island. The author makes a novel and convincing case that both the scholarly and popular narrative of Ellis Island, as the port of entry for European immigrants between 1892 and 1924, is incomplete: Ellis Island also served as an entry point for Chinese and Japanese travelers. As important, the author argues, is the role that Ellis Island played during the second half of its existence, from 1924 to 1954, as detention center and holding area for Asian immigrants to the United States who faced deportation.

Following an introduction, the work is divided into five chapters. The first chapter discusses the enforcement of Asian exclusion at Ellis Island. The author notes the fact that Angel Island in San Francisco was by no means the sole entry point for Asian travelers. Masses of Chinese and Japanese, especially those arriving from Europe, the Caribbean or Canada, disembarked at Ellis Island. The author also uncovers a paradox: a higher percentage of Asian travelers arriving at Ellis Island were refused entry than their counterparts on the West Coast, yet many Asians in fact preferred to enter there. Asian travelers on the East Coast were treated with greater courtesy and less suspicion, and the waiting times they experienced before being granted admission was generally lower.

Chapter two covers the experience of Asian detainees and deportees at Ellis Island. The author provides an interesting portrait of federal raids on Chinatowns. Chapter three investigates official records of Chinese stowaways and smugglers who were caught entering the country. Chapter four covers the history of Chinese sailors in the port of New York, whose historic right to enjoy shore leave at their ports of call was hindered by Chinese exclusion policies and official fears over sailors jumping ship. As a result, these sailors were forced to struggle for equal treatment, both by protest and legal action. The author provides an intriguing portrait of the ways in which the Office of War Information used the shore leave won by Chinese sailors for wartime propaganda purposes.

Unlike the first four chapters, which center primarily on ethnic Chinese, chapter five deals with the internment of Japanese aliens at Ellis Island during World War II. The author explores the round-up of Japanese businessmen, consular officials and others made “enemy aliens” by official designation in the period following Pearl Harbor — nearly half of New York’s Japanese community was detained — and the impact of their confinement in the “concentration camp” of the Island.

Pegler-Gordon deserves credit for taking on a very large subject and transforming it into a coherent and well-organized narrative. The chapter on the wartime confinement of Japanese aliens expands the larger literature on wartime Japanese confinement, especially works on the Department of Justice camps by authors such as Louis Fiset and Tetsuden Kashima. In our current age of official bans on immigration and refugees, it is worthwhile to have a historical insight into the management of marginalized aliens.

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