A Federal Immigration Building With a Dark Past

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In post-war San Francisco, discrimination against Chinese immigrants resulted in tragedy

From the outside, the U.S. Appraiser’s Building in downtown San Francisco is austere and bureaucratic, rising 16 stories tall at 630 Sansome Street. Distinctive for its time, it now resembles federal buildings in other cities around the country. But on the inside, the building carries a troubling history that resonates today, even though its past is largely lost to memory.

Ever since its completion near the end of World War II, 630 Sansome Street has been home to the bureaucracy of immigration, a shifting web of government agencies whose policies have changed over time, like the nation’s anxieties about its borders. In the post-war years, and especially for San Francisco’s Chinese community, the building was synonymous with the notorious detention quarters located on the upper floors—and the suicide and hunger strike that sparked public outrage.

On September 21, 1948, Leong Bick Ha, a 32-year-old Chinese woman, hanged herself from a shower pipe in the building’s detention quarters. She had undergone a thorough examination in China, waiting several months to receive permission to enter the U.S. “Coming from afar to join her husband, she had already borne much suffering,” wrote  San Francisco’s Chinese press. But when she arrived in the city, it was only to be detained at Sansome Street for three months by immigration officials. Separated from her 15-year-old son, who was held in another part of the building, “the torment in her mind was inconceivable.”

Ha’s death was hardly the first incident at 630 Sansome Street. Just three months earlier, Huang Lai, a 41-year-old Chinese woman, climbed from the window of her cell and attempted to jump from a parapet on the building’s 14th floor. After six months’ detention, the constant threat of deportation, and a grueling interrogation in a language she barely knew, Lai had given up. It took San Francisco police three hours to rescue her. Crowds witnessed the ordeal from the sidewalk.

 The detention quarters at Sansome Street were a legacy of Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West,” the major point of entry for immigrants who had crossed the Pacific, until a fire shut it down in 1940. Between 1910 and 1940, “about a half a million people entered or departed the country through Angel Island,” says Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. As Lee and her co-author Judy Yung show in Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, “the island,” as it was known locally, wasn’t comparable to its counterpart in the East. Whereas Ellis Island came to symbolize an open-door nation of immigrants, the purpose of Angel Island was to close America’s gates, to restrict entry to newcomers from Asia. On Angel Island, the entire process was racially driven: Europeans were separated from Asians, and Chinese were segregated from Japanese and other nationalities. Most immigrants were held for a few hours—at most a few days—while inspectors performed routine checks for signs of disease, criminality, insanity or disability.

 

Read the entire story at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/federal-immigration-building-180963265/