Lessons from Angel Island

Photo credit: California State Parks, State Museum Resource Center.

The crisis facing refugee children at our country’s southern border has been weighing on the hearts and minds of everyone at Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Betty Cao, a CAA organizer, recently quoted the words of Un Un Che, a community leader she works with through the CAA Parent Advocates Program.


“The history of Chinese immigrants relates to the children at the Mexico border. They come here because they want better lives for themselves and their families. They didn’t have any other choice but to leave due to war, violence, and hard times. It is another reminder that we really need immigration reform and to be compassionate to our new undocumented immigrants.”


Betty then continued:

“Un Un […] shared these thoughts with me last Thursday during an outing to the Angel Island Immigration Station. Located just a short ferry ride from the San Francisco pier, this state park was once the site of a federal immigration detention and processing center. From 1910 to 1940, Angel Island detained hundreds of thousands of immigrants–and the vast majority of them were from China.

Un Un and I were there as part of our efforts to educate and organize limited-English proficient parents of San Francisco public school students to become empowered and engaged advocates. Parents in the program participate in a host of activities, where they learn about education, immigrant rights, and leadership skills.

More than thirty of us went to Angel Island to connect with the history of Asian immigration right here in the Bay Area. We saw rooms where young immigrant children were subjected to harsh and unreasonable interrogations. We learned how Asian immigrants endured humiliating health inspections. And we read poems inscribed on the walls expressing the frustration and anger of those detained over 100 years ago.

It was a powerful experience for the parent advocates, many of whom brought their children. Carol Zhang, a recent immigrant herself, said, “Both my son and I know more history, and he can also pass this on to generations after us. Before, I didn’t think immigrant rights related to me, but now I feel like I have to explore and step out of my comfort zone to learn about our history and how it affects current issues.””


Two weeks before, our executive director Vincent Pan and I had offered similar reflections:

“Over one hundred years ago, not far from CAA’s office in San Francisco Chinatown, unaccompanied immigrant children from Asia were being detained at the Angel Island immigration station for months and sometimes years.

Though they were simply seeking to be reunited with their family members, they were forced to endure interrogations that were designed to trap them while they suffered in nearly intolerable living conditions.

The stories of those children were part of a long legacy of anti-immigrant public policy that Asian immigrants faced under the Chinese exclusion laws and immigration quotas that dominated much of the 19th and 20th century. It was a shameful period of some of the most restrictive and racist immigration policies in the history of the United States.

Today we are seeing history repeat itself as xenophobic bigotry and hysteria are once again targeting innocent and vulnerable immigrant children.

Though most of the recent unaccompanied arrivals have been children from Central America, the overreaction to their presence is not so different from what occurred a century ago.”


The reality is that we still have an opportunity to change course by treating immigrant children who are fleeing violence with the compassion and dignity they deserve. These children must be afforded the protections and services they need in order to be reunited with their loved ones. Those who would detain children in warehouse conditions, ignore their individual circumstances, and deport them at all costs will be on the wrong side of history.

Shortsighted efforts by Republicans to roll back this law would create disastrous consequences for victims of human trafficking throughout the world, and immediately place tens of thousands of children in harm’s way.