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For a land beyond

Posted on Aug 02, 11:33AM | IBNS

Immigration is not a new phenomenon. The search for better living conditions, better opportunities continues to lure people despite the heartbreaks and disillusionments. Rajashri Dasgupta recently visited an exhibit in Washington to discover the hidden stories behind aspirants to find a new land

The eyes speak eloquently of hope. The face of 23 years-old Lee Puey You looks valiantly ahead, a face of determination, ready even to lie and marry a man 30 years her senior.

But neither Lee's youth nor her tears have the convincing power to soften hardened officials. The year is 1939, and Lee's China is ravaged by war with the Japanese army. The place of her incarceration is Angel Islands in San Francisco Bay in USA. For three hours officials grill Lee, then find her story of her father being a US citizen unconvincing and deport her back to China. But the grit of immigrants is hard to erode, and not being one to give up, Lee returns to US shores some years later, this time claiming to be a "war widow". Lee is allowed entry, only to find her "widower" is very much married with a wife and children. Nevertheless, she marries him and works for the family.

The haunting face of Lee Puey You captured in an enlarged black-and-white photograph was part of a recent exhibit on the travails and the conflicting history of immigration to USA. Titled Attachments: Faces and Stories from America's Gates, the exhibition in the National Archives, Washington DC captured the poignant tales of hope, joy and disappointments, discrimination and deceit through the eyes of immigrants between 1880s to World War II.

Immigration remains a disputed issue in the US even today. "But we are not trying to make any political statement about contemporary debates," said senior curator of the exhibit, Bruce Bustard. "I do hope that anyone who visits the exhibit will gain some appreciation that immigration has long, complicated, and conflicted history in this country."

Some came to America, the land of riches and opportunity, loaded with money, others with only a few belongings; some had their entry documents in order, others like "paper daughter" Lee carried false papers and visas. They came in large numbers full of hope, some were overjoyed to have been allowed entry, while others were turned away disappointed, or even worse, were threatened with deportation.

The story of immigration worldwide is fraught with conflict and racial bias. By the end of the 19th century, there were strong anti-immigrant movements in the US. The Chinese were viewed as a threat as they were willing to work for lower wages in mining, railroad construction and other manual work. There are well-documented stories of how immigrants were detained in camps like in Angels Island for weeks, months or even years, many were asked obscure questions about their ancestral village or family
"for verification" that they found difficult to answer.

Many faced racial prejudice and discrimination and stiff laws were enacted to keep away "undesirable" immigrants- those who were sick, illiterate, and mentally unsound or held unpopular beliefs like polygamy and anarchy. Dubas Wasyl, an Austrian, for example, was deported in 1906; the reason given on a slip of paper in the exhibit reads, "moral turpitude". The few stories narrated in the exhibit are drawn from the millions of documents, cases and photographs attached to government forms submitted by immigrants while seeking entry in America.

Strangely, there are no pictures or stories of Indians in the exhibit though they came to America in large numbers during the same period. The mystery of the missing Indians was explained by curator Bustard in an interview: "I had made a rule that the people I included in the exhibit had to have both a great story and a photograph that appear in the records of the National Archives".

Though Bustard was able to find "fascinating stories" of several Indian nationalists, for example, who came to the US, unfortunately he found no photographs of them in the National Archives. On the other hand, he found several wonderful portrait photographs of Indians in the records, but their stories were not interesting enough. "I wish I had more time to keep researching. I'm sure I would have eventually discovered people who had both interesting stories and photographs," said Bustard.

Today, Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest- growing racial group in the US, with Asians now making up the largest share of recent immigrants. If Indians are absent in Attachments, they are today making news in the US, viewed as part of the Asian "model minority". According to the Pew Research Centre, there are 3 million Indians in the US as against 3.5 million Chinese, the largest Asian ethnic group. In education in 2010, Indians beat the Chinese by 20 percent, 70 percent Indians ( as against 50 percent Chinese) boasted a bachelors degree or more.

The exhibition revealed how the new and developing art of photography in late 19th century was a godsend to the overworked officials; immigration policy made it compulsory for travellers to be photographed for identification. Sometimes, the physical and facial features of immigrants, including hat and shoe size were recorded. It was the Chinese community who were the first - and for years to be the only ethnic group - to be documented by the camera. Lee Puey Young's expressive face at the point of entry into the "Gold Mountain" is now there for posterity.

Chinese women in particular faced racial bias; they were viewed with suspicion as immigration officials were unable to comprehend the Chinese custom of married men keeping concubines, thus lumping all Chinese women as prostitutes. The 1875 Page Act is not only to prevent contract workers from entering the country but also prostitutes. Therefore, to impress hardened officials of her class and social status, Wong Lan Fong travelled first class, was stylishly coiffed, looks prosperous in her photograph and is equipped with a letter from a clergyman about her legitimate marriage to a merchant.

There was a systematic exclusion of various Asian groups over the years. If the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese miners from entering the US for ten years, it also excluded the Chinese from citizenship. The Immigration Act of 1917 ruled an Indian could not be a naturalized citizen of the US because he was not a white person. Both laws were eventually repealed. But by such exclusion and disenfranchising, the "whiteness" of the citizenry could be ensured and the national culture protected from "racial corruption" and "foreigners" from owning property.

It was not until World War I that White immigrants from Europe were required to be photographed. The war brought with it insecurity and fear of espionage, and led to the National Origins Act 1924 restricting limits also on white Europeans. The Italian musician, Pasquale Taraffo's photograph speaks volumes -designed to impress entry, he is seen with a huge harp-guitar as evidence of his profession. It is ironical that a country founded on the backbone of immigrants must periodically tighten its borders --as the current raging controversy with the Hispanics reveals--to exclude the very people who have brought it immense prosperity.