Friday, 01 July 2011 11:43
Visitors to the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island State Park are drawn to cast iron bell on the faux wharf. Set against the gentle waves lapping on the shore, the bell looms up like a beacon. It was a constant presence for the immigrants who were detained at the Immigration Station between 1910 and 1940. Throughout the night, it rang out its warning to passing ships and reminded those waking from sleep of their isolation on this beautiful but sad isle.
Next to the Angel Island bell, there is something new to draw the visitors eyes. A large concrete retaining wall covered with granite plaques imposes its quiet dignity by the water's edge. Inscribed upon the plaques are the names of hundreds of immigrants and their descendants. The Immigrant Heritage Wall is a memorial to men, women, and children who made difficult journeys across the Pacific only to endure weeks, sometimes months, of anxiety as they were questioned about their right to enter the United States. On July 23,over 1,000 families, many of the descendants, who donated funds to create the Immigrant Heritage Wall will celebrate the lives of these pioneers, many of whom were Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, Russian, Jewish, and other nationalities. The pride the families feel is certainly understandable. From very humble roots, these immigrants forged strong families and made lasting contributions to our state and nation.
Who were these immigrants and what do their stories tell us about our nation's character and commitment to justice and equality?
* Dalip Singh Samra, a South Asian farmer in Elk Grove, CA, is honored on the Immigrant Heritage Wall by his sons Paul, Harry, Peter and Norma. He arrived on Angel Island in November 18, 1910, the son of poor Sikh farmers in Punjabi, and through back-breaking work transitioned from farm laborer to farm owner. Today, the Samra Farm continues to operate.
* the Tomoyuki Nozawa, who owned a laundry and cleaning business and later became a partner in the Nichei Bei Bank, is honored by daughters Tomoye Takahashi and Martha Suzuki. Mr. Nozawa helped many Japanese immigrants find work and get settled in San Francisco
And then there is my father Moon Tung Wong, who like thousands of young men from southern China, came to Gum San (Gold Mountain)to earn money to support his impoverished family. Like his father and older brother, he intended to work a while and return to China. And like them, he was detained for months by immigration authorities. Not even being deported after someone informed on his false family, could deter this young man. He waited a year, bought another false paper and bluffed his way through two weeks of questioning and was landed in January 1930.
It is estimated that 75% of the Chinese immigrants who came through Angel Island were "paper sons" and "paper daughters." They were illegal immigrants, who claimed to be the offspring of an American-born Chinese. They felt no compulsion about violating the racially-discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act. And no one needed to lecture them about Henry David Thoreau, Saint Augustine, and the tradition of civil disobedience. They just knew an unjust law must be resisted. Still, their illegality sowed a legacy of secrecy, distrust of government, and avoidance of confrontation that exacted its own toll on families.
These stories of perseverance, hardship, and struggle that pour out from the Immigrant Heritage Wall are part of the molten ore that forges America's soul, renewing our national purpose and vision. So as we dedicate the Immigrant Heritage Wall, we pause to thank those who came before us and suffered and sacrificed so that we could walk on a smoother road and take advantage of opportunities for education that they could never enjoy.