Over the next two months, Katy Long will be travelling across America, tracing the history of newcomers to the country across two centuries and three thousand miles. At a time when America is fiercely debating the nature of national identity and the future of US immigration, this project offers a vital perspective on the history of US immigration at both a personal and political level.
Each week, she will provide a visual update, chronicling how - despite facing hostility - each new group of arrivals has played a crucial role in shaping the very definition of what it means to be an American. The updates will be weaved into a longer narrative and published as a book later in 2018.
I moved to San Francisco from London in April 2014. It was not love at first sight. The city felt cold and grey, the fog surrounding the rows upon rows of homeless tents downtown. But slowly I fell for the city’s charms: for its sparkling bay and steep streets, for the liberal community I found in the parks dotted throughout my neighborhood.
But two years later, on 8 November 2016, Donald J Trump Jr. was elected President. Walking San Francisco’s streets the next morning, I saw only shocked and stony faces. Whose America was this? Were we — recent immigrants to America — welcome here anymore? In San Francisco we felt at home. But could we just continue to hide in our liberal bubble, our white privilege protecting us from the seep of toxic politics?
To try to answer these questions, we decided to drive across America, from San Francisco to New York. Talking to people we meet along the way, we would unravel America’s immigration story. We’d fit our own American journey into the story of the 74 million immigrants that had come before us.
So, on a cold March morning we took the ferry to Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Between 1910 and 1940, the island’s immigration station functioned as the gateway to America’s West Coast. But Angel Island wasn’t a place of welcome: it was a place intended to deter and to exclude. During this period, immigration from Asia to America was almost totally prohibited.
Those detained on Angel Island — the vast majority of whom were Chinese — had to try to persuade the officials interrogating them that they had the right to enter. They usually claimed to be the citizen children of American-born Chinese. Yet it’s estimated that up to 90% of those arriving were actually ‘paper sons’, relying upon coaching books to answer officials’ questions.
Ancient history? Not really. These Chinese migrants relied upon chain migration, navigated a travel ban, and fought in the courts for the right to due process. The parallels between their stories, and the debates swirling around US immigration policy today, are impossible to miss.
Angel Island is a memorial to the worst of America. But alongside this despair, I think it’s also a place of hope, a reminder of the promise of opportunity. Standing on Angel Island, as the rain pours down from a black sky, I read plaques dedicated to these migrants by their descendants: thank-you notes full of gratitude for bestowing the gift of an American journey.
And now our own journey is about to start. In my next post from San Diego, I’ll explore what it’s like to live in the shadow of the now notorious US-Mexico border wall.