Wednesday, 31 December 2008 16:00
The pen used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was donated to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and the California State Parks by Miriam Wydra Mendell in 1996. Her sons, Jeffrey and Mark wanted our readers to know that this historic pen will be exhibited at the Detention Barracks and provided the following background story.
As a 16 year old teenager in Germany in 1929, Miriam Wydra was sent alone by her parents to the U.S. because conditions for Jews in pre-Nazi Germany were already becoming difficult. Miriam was detained for a long time on Ellis Island by the U.S. immigration authorities and was almost sent back to Germany, because the authorities did not believe that she was entering only temporarily to be a student. Finally allowed to enter the U.S., Miriam lived with an aunt, learned English while she finished high school, and then went to work for the U.S. Congress as an interpreter.
She became the clerk for the U.S. Congressional Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. (As she explained to her disbelieving young children later -- she was not a secretary, she had a secretary.) As a recent immigrant, dedicated to the ideals of her new country, Miriam thought the Chinese Exclusion Act reflected unacceptable prejudice and did not fit with American ideals. She worked long and hard behind the scenes to get enough members of the Congressional committee to support repeal of the Act. Although there were important political reasons for a repeal -- China was an ally of the U.S. in World War II, and Japan used the Chinese Exclusion Act as a propaganda tool against the U.S. -- there was still opposition in the U.S. The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed when Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed the Magnuson Act in 1943.
A pen that the president used to sign a bill was usually presented to the sponsoring congressman; however, it was agreed that Miss Wydra had worked so hard for the repeal that President Roosevelt would present the pen to her, with an authenticating letter. Miriam kept the pen and letter, but modestly never mentioned this to her family until almost 50 years later. The family agreed that this important historical artifact should be donated to an appropriate organization. And so it happened that in 1996, when she was 83, Miriam Wydra and her family brought the pen and its authenticating letter to Angel Island and, in a ceremony there, presented it to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. The family thinks that this is just the right place for it.