Interrogations of Chinese Immigrants at Angel Island Chinese immigration, after being shut down for many years by governmental legislation and an anti- Chinese climate resumed quickly after 1906. The major earthquake and fire that occurred in San Francisco lent the Chinese immigrants a window of opportunity to regain entrance to America. Immigrants could now claim, without proof, that they were indeed the son or daughter of a citizen or a partner in a legitimate business. These paper sons and paper merchants increased the number of Chinese immigrants by an unbelievable rate. It was this supposed population explosion that would lead the United States to investigate all incoming Chinese immigrants. Being wary of the impossibility of so many legitimate children of U.S. citizens of Chinese descent, the department of immigration and naturalization sought out to verify that these people were indeed the true sons and daughters or the actual businessmen that they claimed to be.
Therefore it was against this historical background and unde! r these particular auspices that the interrogations at Angel Island were carried out from 1910 to 1940. These interrogations were by no means fair, nor were they based on any other legal or practical precedent. While unreasonable detentions were already the norm, the act of interrogating immigrants to the extent that the Chinese were interrogated was unheard of in history. These interrogations were intricate and detailed, and designed to ensnare unwitting Chinese immigrants seeking entrance into the United States. The interrogations not only presented a hurdle for incoming immigrants by prolonging their detention at Angel Island and increasing the bureaucracy required to process Chinese immigrants, but would deeply scar the Chinese landing in the United States.
Moreover, the traumatic experiences at Angel Island coupled with other practices following the detentions such as raids of Chinatown during the Red Scare of the 1950’s led to a persistent fear of deportation by landed C! hinese. The interrogations were more than just simple interview questions about one’s village or parents, rather they were, taken as a whole, another method to exclude the Chinese from America. The entire interrogation was loosely structured but by no means were they were regular or fair. After being held at Angel Island on a writ of habeas corpus, Chinese immigrants were interrogated by a Board of Special Inquiry which was composed of two inspectors, one of which was the Chairman of the Board, a stenographer, and finally an interpreter. This board was not held to technical rules of procedure or evidence as used in other federal courts but rather was allowed to use any means it deemed fit under the exclusion acts and immigration laws to ascertain the applicant’s legitimacy to enter the United States (Lai 20).
Nevertheless the lines of questioning were generally the same for all immigrants. The questions usually started with personal information then proceeded onto family information, village information, and then finally information on the home. Within these groupings there were multiple side questions concerning details of the family or village. Immigrants were aske! d extremely detailed and far ranging questions within these side questions. They were asked questions similar to the questions Jow Yick faced in 1909 in case #1424, “Is she (your mother) a small footed woman?” or “Is any body of water near or within sight of your house?” Other questions concerning the village became increasingly detailed.
In the case of Ung Shee, case #16778/2-12, the husband had to testify on the entire village and all the particulars of the inhabitants of each home. In one instance the inspector asked the husband of Ung Shee whether or not the woman in the third house and fourth row of the village had bound feet. In Ung Shee’s case, detailed questioning about every family in every house was continued up until the seventh row of the village. Her husband also endured questions such as, “Do you cross a stream going to the market?” and “How large is the bridge over that stream?” as well as other questions such as, “Did your brother have a picture of yourself in ! his house?” (Box 1211 National Archives). This however, was not far from the norm for most immigrants.
To give a general idea of the structure of the interrogation, an inspector gave a brief description of the line of questioning he took: We started by getting the data on the applicant himself: his name, age, any other names, and physical description. Then we would ask him to describe his family: his father – his boyhood name, marriage name, and any other names he might have had, his age and so forth. Then we would go down the line: how many brothers and sisters described in detail – names, age, sex, and so forth. Then we would have to go into the older generations: paternal grandparents; then how many uncles and aunts and they had to be described. Then the village: the district, how many houses it was composed of, how arranged, how many houses in each row, which way the village faced, what was the head and tail of the village. Then the next door neighbors.
Then describe the house: how many rooms and describe them What markets they went to. Find out about the father’s trip: when he came home, how long was he home, did he go to any special places, and describe the trip from his village to Hong Kong (Lai 112). Therefore it is clear that there was a semi-rigid structure to the line of questioning that the inspectors took. However, within the interrogation structure, inspectors were free to deviate and ask about anything that they felt might elucidate the true status of the immigrant. In the end, applicants were usually asked around two to three hundred questions, but in some cases were asked upwards of a thousand (Chen 107). After interrogating the witness, the board usually sought out other witnesses. These extra witnesses were usually composed of family members or business partners. Often times white witnesses would be brought in to testify for the Chinese immigrant in question. Usually the questions reserved for these white witnesses were notably shorter than the questions asked of Chinese spouses or relatives.
After taking the statements of relatives and acquaintances, interrogators brought the immigrant back in and began to examine and further question slight contradictions in statements between family members and the immigrant. “It is suggested that the examining officer closely follow the examination already conducted, clearly developing any variations which may appear . . . ” (Letter from immigrant inspector to Commissioner of Immigration).
The time it took to take the testimonies of all parties involved usually ranged from three to four days. The length of the interrogation was exacerbate! d if the family members were located in some eastern city such as Chicago or New York. In these cases it was necessary to correspond back and forth and have family members or other available witnesses provide testimony to the Immigration Service offices in those cities and transmit the files back to San Francisco (Clauss 65-66). The collective testimony was anywhere from twenty to eighty pages depending on the case but usually averaged forty or fifty pages of typed testimony (Chen 107). By this time if a decision by the board could still not be reached the case would be suspended for ten days, in which more data would be gathered.
In this period, letters from acquaintances might be gathered from members of the community who knew the family of the immigrant. These acquaintances would testify to the fact that, indeed the family was expecting a member to arrive on a certain day on a certain ship. However, more importantly, these letters often spoke of the family’s good standing in the community. These letters usually written by white businessmen, were written in the hopes that the board would be convinced of the status of the immigrant and allow that person to land. The underlying tone of the message however, was one of recommendation.
The white man was vouching for the Chinese family in these letters, stating his personal knowledge about the family. In the case of Ung Shee, a letter was sent stating that her husband was, “. . . sober, industrious, and reliable.! .
.” (letter written by W. B. Cooper). Another letter written on behalf of Ung Shee’s husband stated, “In behalf of Mr. How, I beg to state that I have known him for a number of years and believe him to be a straight forward, honest, Christian Chinaman, and is doing well in his business in this city” (letter written by M. J. Allen).
It was not sufficient for the Chinese family to state that in fact they were expecting relatives to arrive in America. The board required a more trustworthy source – which meant a white man. These letters usually extolled the virtues of the Chinese citizen such as honesty and many times Christianity which were held in high regard by a white America and especially a white Special Board of Inquiry. After all the supplemental information, including the “letters of recommendation,” was received and reviewed a decision was made. If the decision was admittance, the detainee was allowed to land at once.
However, if the decision was deportation, the detai! nee had five days to protest this decision. His or her case would be retried and he or she would be reinterrogated. These appellates however, had to stay on Angel Island while awaiting for their appeal hearing. It was here that some would stay in upwards of two years, waiting to hear from the board (Dorgon 1A). The appeals were usually successful as the percentage of total applicants deported on the basis of the testimony alone was anywhere from four to five percent (Chow interview).
Therefore there was recourse for those not initially granted entrance into America. What is most striking about this however, is that the final decision of allowing Chinese into the country was based not so much on the word of the Chinese family as it was on a “trustworthy” white man. The immigration and naturalization service clearly knew that many Chinese immigrants were using false claims to gain entrance into the United States. Inspectors were already aware of the fact that many of the Chinese entrants after 1906 were fraudulent. “.
. . many Chinese began to return to this country and they claimed to be coming back as natives. As a matter of fact, it would have been humanly impossible for most of them to be citizens because there were not many Chinese women over here” (Lai 112). Takaki also points out that if every claim to natural born citizenship was valid during this period then every Chinese woman living in San Francisco would have to have had eight hundred children (236). Therefore American interrogators were not oblivious to the impossibility of the entire situation.
This would serve as the basis for much of their work. A second reason why the Chinese were interrogated was due to the fact that the new immigrants were all alleging that they were ac! tually citizens or potential citizens, rather than aliens. Therefore the immigration station had to test the validity of these claims of citizenship status (Lai 111). The intent of the Board of Special Inquiry at Angel Island was to deport or exclude as many prospective Chinese immigrants as possible. Under the aegis of seeking out the truth and separating the legitimate immigrants from the spurious claims, the immigration service sought to exclude the Chinese.
This is obvious from the type of questions asked and the circumventing of traditional rules of procedure. The type of questions were often based on previous knowledge concerning the village. After these inspectors had worked thousands of cases, they had gained a clear knowledge of what some of the major villages looked like. With this knowledge of the village layout, they asked questions that were purposefully wrong to entrap immigrants (Chow interview). The attention to detail as well as the dubious lines of questioning were merely used as cause for exclusion.
A secondary reason motivating the immigration service at Angel Island was performance. As Paul Chow, an Angel Island activis! t, points out, the immigration service was a punitive department. The more people they proved guilty of false papers then the more efficient that they seemed (Chow interview). Chinese immigrants being landed would only draw criticism from the public. Therefore they would prefer as many Chinese deported as possible because this would enhance their image as being thorough and completely dedicated gate keepers. The job then provided ample personal motivation to the interrogators to be especially adamant against the entrance of Chinese. This is clearly evidenced by the interrogation process, in which the underlying intent was to not find the truth but to exclude as many Chinese as possible.
The dockets for alleged sons of natives or business partners were always the fullest. This showed the immigration service’s knowledge about the false papers and also attests to their vigilance in interrogating them. The testimony required and the number of supporting documents and corroborating witnesses were much greater than those of students or natives of Hawaii. Students from China were almost unanimously allowed in with very little questioning. Alleging that one was a student was much more difficult than posing as a son or partner in a business.
This is probably the reason why students were expedited through the entire process at Angel Island. The purported sons of citizens or partners in business were examined …