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What Filipina/o American History Can Teach Us About the Recent Executive Order on Immigration

Categories: News

by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Dept. of History, San Francisco State University; Co-Founder, Little Manila Foundation; National Scholar, Filipino American National Historical Society; and

Kevin Nadal, Ph.D., Professor, Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Director, Center for LGBTQ Studies, City University of New York; President, Asian American Psychological Association; Board of Trustees, Filipino American National Historical Society

Primitivo Gonzales

Primitivo Gonzales, Courtesy of the National Archives, San Bruno

In early April 1934, seventeen-year-old Primitivo Gonzales left his hometown of Numancia, on the island of Panay in the Philippines, and proceeded to Manila. On April 18, 1934, he boarded the USS President Hoover with more than a hundred Filipinos on board, en route to San Francisco. Gonzales had no visa for entry into the United States, because he didn’t need one. When he left Manila, the Philippines was a United States colony, and he was a colonial subject, a “national” – a category between “alien” and “citizen.”

On April 30, 1934, as Gonzales’ ship streamed towards San Francisco, the Philippine Senate followed the US Congress’ lead and ratified the Tydings-McDuffie Act, otherwise known as the Philippine Independence Act. The Act, a victory for anti-Filipino exclusionists and Filipino nationalists, promised Philippine independence in 10 years, changed the status of Filipinos from “nationals” to “aliens,” and established an entry quota of 50 per year (a compromise when some in Congress wanted no entry at all; in comparison, the annual entry quota for Germans was 57,000). Overnight, he became a deportable alien under the provisions of the 1924 Immigration Act, which had established strict immigration exclusions and quotas based on racial and national origins. On May 9, 1934, Gonzales and 143 other Filipinos aboard the USS Hoover were held at Angel Island, the isolated immigration station, that had opened in 1910 in the San Francisco Bay to detain Asian immigrants. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) ruled that Gonzales was to be excluded (or detained until his admissibility was determined) because he was an alien who lacked the proper immigration visa.

The sudden change of the status of Filipino immigrants from nationals to deportable aliens on May 1, 1934, the lack of advance warning, and the confusion that ensued, mirrors the fallout from the recent Executive Order issued Friday, January 27, 2017. Chaos erupted this week at airports across the nation when the Executive Order that banned all immigration – even of permanent residents who are green card holders and by previously vetted refugees, some who had waited years — from seven predominantly Muslim nations, and established a preference for Christian refugees. Like the Angel Island Filipinos whose immigration statuses changed with a stroke of a pen, permanent residents with green cards and immigrants with visas became deportable aliens overnight, with dozens awaiting an uncertain future in detention cells in major airports across the nation. A stay on deportations ordered by a federal judge and a clarification that green card holders would be allowed to enter came too late for some, who were deported almost immediately when they landed or were barred from boarding flights altogether.

Like the border officials at major airports this week, the INS officials at Angel Island in 1934 were unprepared as to why, how, and when these Filipinos should be detained and deported. Like the bungled rollout of the Executive Order, officials were not given explicit instructions as to what to do with these new aliens, beyond the order to detain them. And like the passengers from seven Muslim-majority countries arriving in the U.S. this week, the Filipino passengers on steamships arriving in Honolulu and San Francisco in early May, 1934, were shocked by their new status. And like the immigrants who arrived over this past weekend, these newly arrived Filipinos were treated as criminals from the moment their ships landed in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles — an experience very different from the one experienced by the almost 100,000 Filipina/o immigrants who had come before them. As colonials (the category “national” was reserved for Filipinos and American Indians, who were ineligible for citizenship but nonetheless swore allegiance to the United States), they were listed as “US citizens” on ship manifests, and upon arrival, they disembarked directly with little fanfare and almost no paperwork.

In late April 1934, Filipinos on the USS Hoover heard that the US Congress had passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, and that the legislation was on its way to be ratified in the Philippines. Alarmed, eight Filipinos disembarked in Honolulu on the stopover towards San Francisco. However, the majority of the Filipinos on the USS Hoover were unmoved by word that they might be excluded and endeavored to continue to San Francisco as planned. Hundreds of other Filipinos on other ships took the same chance. When the Tydings-McDuffie Act was passed, there were six steamships bound for San Francisco. The first new aliens arrived on May 1, 1934, aboard the SS President Taft at 7:40 in the morning and they were held at Angel Island. Unsure of what to do, the San Francisco District Office asked the INS Headquarters for instructions. Ruling on May 5, 1934, the US District Attorney Henry H. McPike ordered that all Filipinos who were being held at Angel Island must be deported.

The fate of Filipinos was now tied to the one experienced by other immigrants from Asia attempting to enter the United States at this time, who encountered formidable barriers. Virulent, rabid, racist anti-Asian campaigns of the 19th century and early 20th century accused Chinese and Japanese laborers of stealing American jobs; their assimilability, religions, culture and their fitness for American citizenship was challenged. With the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Congress halted entry of Chinese laborers. Japanese laborers were barred via the 1906 Gentlemen’s Agreement, and South Asian immigration was halted in 1917. Angel Island was opened in 1910 specifically to detain and interrogate Asian immigrants attempting to enter the United States. When Congress passed the 1924 Immigration Act (which excluded all “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from entering the U.S.), they effectively barred every other Asian group from entering the country, except Filipinos.

Prior to the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act, every attempt to bar Filipinos was vigorously protested as hypocritical by Filipinos in the United States and the Philippines and the Resident Commissioners, the nonvoting representatives of the colony in Congress. They argued: how could the United States bar the entry of people of their own colony? This argument became moot when the proponents of Filipino citizenship and exclusion allied with those agitating for independence of the Philippines in the Tydings-McDuffie Act, a victory for nationalists, but a major defeat for proponents of Filipino citizenship rights, such as Congressman Vito Marcantonio of New York, and the Committee for the Protection of Filipino Rights, a California-based group headed by Carlos Bulosan, Chris Mensalvas, and Claro Candelario.

Ships carrying Filipinos continued to arrive at West Coast ports until mid-May. Since the journey took three weeks, all had departed Manila or Honolulu days, if not weeks, before the Tydings-McDuffie Act was ratified. Eventually, a total of 261 Filipinos were detained on Angel Island. All of the Angel Island Filipinos were excluded because they either lacked a proper immigration visa, or they could not read or write in English or Ilocano, Visayan, or Tagalog, or the board considered them likely to become public charges, reliant on welfare (the 1917 Immigration Act excluded these categories of immigrants). The immigrants were allowed, after photographs and fingerprints, to enter the United States on parole – under the watch of Annie Clo Watson, Executive Secretary of the International Institute of San Francisco. Watson was a staunch advocate for immigrants and refugees and the Institute (which still operates and has offices across the Bay Area) provided legal services for immigrants and refugees. By mid-May 1934, the Institute had become responsible for approximately 261 Filipino immigrants. A Filipina caseworker, Eugenia de Estoita, who also worked as a translator for some of the interrogations, endeavored to help the immigrants.

In June, 1934, the INS decided that Filipinos who could prove they had resided in the United States before April 30, would be allowed to stay. Under this rule, the INS allowed only two Angel Island Filipinos to legally enter the United States. One of these men was Tranquilino Quijalvo, a 27-year-old native of Pangasinan who also arrived on the Hoover, who argued that he had been in the United States in 1927 and only went home for a short visit. When his case came up again for review in June, 1945, he wrote to the INS, pleading for them to change the date of the hearing to after the busy asparagus-picking season. His last known record was his listing in the Stockton City Directory in 1950, four years after his case review, suggesting that he may have been successful with his case.

In February, 1935, the appeals of the remaining Angel Island Filipinos were dismissed, and the exclusion was affirmed. The International Institute tried contacting the paroled Filipinos to notify them of the decision, but the majority of letters they sent out were returned. Beginning in early 1935, the INS embarked on an aggressive and largely unsuccessful manhunt for the Filipinas/os who had been let out on parole. The INS sent agents to scour the towns listed as final destinations on their arrival case file sheets. In 1940, the Alien Registration Act required all aliens to fill out paperwork stating their political beliefs and full contact information. In some cases, agents used the addresses given in the Alien Registration Files to search for these Filipinos. They wrote to parents, relatives, children or acquaintances, imploring them to give up the alien for deportation.

The passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934 and the Repatriation Act in 1935 capped a decade of anti-Filipino racial violence and repression, which manifested itself in mob violence, police brutality, anti-miscegenation laws, segregation, and exploitative work conditions. Both laws were co-sponsored by San Jose’s Congressman Richard Welch, a proponent of Filipino exclusion and virulent anti-Filipino racism.  With the Repatriation Act, the government issued a ticket home to any Filipino willing to agree never to return to the United States. While INS officials denied that the act was a deportation measure, the vast majority of Filipinos resisted the offer. For many Filipinas/os, doing so was tantamount to the humiliation of deportation. Until the program was ended in 1938, the INS employed a publicity campaign to convince Filipinos that the act was paternalistic and not racist. Filipinos did not buy this; out of more than 100,000 Filipinos in the United States in 1935, only about 2,100 decided to go back to the Philippines. Before leaving, the first group of Filipinos were detained at Angel Island, where they reported substandard food and prison-like conditions. This was not good PR for the INS.

Given the grim conditions of life for all Americans in 1935, much less for Filipina/os, it is astounding, in retrospect, that Filipinos chose to stay. The Depression resulted in depressed wages in service and farm work (where they toiled in brutal conditions), and their frequent attempts to organize labor unions were often crushed by growers, law enforcement, and the courts. They were barred from naturalization. The Alien Land Laws in various states barred landownership, and Jim Crow segregation laws and practices limited their mobility. (See, for instance, the many “No Filipinos Allowed” signs that proliferated across the West Coast, most famously, in Stockton.) Anti-miscegenation laws in California, Oregon, and Washington outlawed Filipino men from marrying their white girlfriends. Elected officials, labor leaders, and scholars argued vociferously that Filipinos were unassimilable, racially unfit for citizenship, and must be excluded. Of the mid-1930s, eminent Filipino American author and labor activist Carlos Bulosan wrote in his acclaimed 1942 novel America Is in the Heart: “I came to know afterward that it was a crime to be a Filipino in California…It was the year of the great hatred. The lives of Filipinos were cheaper than those of dogs.”

At least one Filipino who had decided to stay voiced his anger at the government. In a letter to the Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, New York City-based Filipino immigrant Bernardo Bunuan  — who had arrived in New York in 1914 and was a World War I veteran, but now an alien without a visa — wrote passionately to point out the hypocrisy of immigration policies. “In the Philippine Public Schools we learn your constitution and also the American texts books which contained the two rotten phrases, Equality and Freedom,” he wrote in June, 1936. “These phrases lure the mind of the poor Filipino youths. Ambitious, ignorant and poor as we are, we have come to find the land of the Free and where the people are treated equal, only to find ourselves without constitutional rights…”

Bunuan was one of more than 100,000 Filipinos who staked their claim on the American Dream and refused to go back. Could we mark the Repatriation Act and Tydings-McDuffie as the turning point in which these migrants, faced with a choice of staying or leaving, chose to take a leap of faith for their futures as Filipina/o Americans? All those who decided to stay formed the basis for today’s Filipina/o American community. It would not be until 1946, with the passage of the Luce-Celler Act, that a quota of 100 was established and Filipina/o immigrants could become naturalized citizens. Among the first Filipinos to apply and receive naturalization was Bernado Bunuan, who became a citizen in August, 1947, and settled in Brooklyn.

no filipinos allowed sign

Positively No Filipinos Allowed, Look Magazine, 1945

In 1965, the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart-Celler Immigration and Naturalization Act), which was designed to reunite families and attract skilled workers, changed the immigration quota system so that each country received an equal amount of visas, and effectively abolished discriminatory visa restrictions that were based on race and national origins. This opened the borders for millions of Asians to immigrate to the U.S. In the  present day, thanks to the 1965 Immigration Act, only Mexico has sent more immigrants to the United States than the Philippines. Filipina/o Americans are the third largest ethnic group in California, and second largest Asian American community in the nation.

Let’s return to the case of Primitivo Gonzales. Like many of his fellow Filipino immigrants before him, he listed his final destination as Stockton, California, where he planned to meet his uncle. He had $10 in his pocket. He gave his address in America as 50 E. Lafayette Street, a Filipino diner called the Lafayette Lunch Counter, which was owned by Pablo Mabalon (Dawn’s grandfather). After he was paroled from the International Institute, Gonzalez disappeared. He filled out an application to take advantage of the Repatriation Act on July 8, 1938; he was living in Watsonville. The INS District Office in Salinas offered to escort Gonzales to San Francisco and onto a ship. Gonzales never showed. In 1939, the INS sent agents to look for him in Stockton. The INS finally gave up – only because of World War II and the lack of commercial steamships plying the transpacific route.

Almost every Angel Island Filipino proceeded to elude the INS and disappear into the Filipina/o American cultural landscape, going underground in obscure rural towns and labor camps, and in huge, impersonal cities like Chicago and New York, or in teeming Little Manilas and Manilatowns where their compatriots could hide them. Only a handful of Angel Island Filipinos were ever caught and deported. Marciano Galindo, arrived on the SS Lurline on May 5, 1934, with a final destination as Stockton. Galindo, who worked for much of his life on plantations in Hawaii, decided to take a chance and go to Stockton to take a job his uncle had promised him. He was arrested and deported on the SS President Coolidge on March 17, 1941.

After losing track of 99 percent of these Angel Island Filipinos by the 1950s, the INS gave up and closed most of the files. At least one of these men joined the U.S. Army’s Second Filipino Regiment and became a U.S. citizen. One died in a terrible car accident in Stockton. The rest have been lost – at least to the INS, but not to our community. We can assume most of these men and women lived lives of hard work and quiet dignity, as farm workers, waiters, cooks, wives and mothers, and in other backbreaking jobs, that they sent home money to the parents and children they named in their Angel Island interrogation hearings, that they moved with the seasons to cut asparagus in the springtime in Stockton, signed contracts and boarded ships bound for Seattle, and then, the great Alaska salmon canneries, to harvest grapes in the heat of the fall in Delano, to work the celery in the wintertime in Sacramento.

It is not difficult to be drawn in by a tiny photo of the young and naïve face of 17-year-old Primitivo Gonzales in his case file, stored with several others at the National Archives in San Bruno, California. There is a quiet and desperate hope that his and other testimonies in these case files revealed: these were very young, hopeful, vulnerable human beings from the poorest  parts of the Philippines, all willing to leave their loved ones behind to take their chances in a country they believed was the greatest on earth. It’s a story that continues to play out generation after generation, day after day, as Filipinos leave the Philippines to find work elsewhere, and as immigrants and refugees from all over the globe leave their homelands for the United States and places all around the world, all hoping that the reception they experience at their destination is one that is warm and welcoming. Recently, CNN Philippines reported than more than 300,000 undocumented Filipinos in the United States could now be subject to immediate deportation.

At airports across the nation this week, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in massive, impromptu protests to demand that immigrants, permanent residents, and refugees from those seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) be allowed to enter the United States. They questioned whether barring the entry of immigrants and refugees from predominantly Muslim majority countries betrayed uniquely American values. “Anti-Muslim is Anti-American,” read one sign at the SFO protest on January 28, held aloft by a 20 something young woman. But we haven’t always welcomed all immigrants — and the example of the Filipinos of Angel Island tells us how we have closed our doors to immigrants. History also tells us how we have learned from these mistakes with immigration reform laws, like the 1965 Immigration Act, which sought to right the wrongs of past racist immigration exclusion laws.

angel island immigration building

Angel Island Immigration Station, Men’s Building, photo by Dawn B. Mabalon

The similarities between the events that took place 83 years ago and the events today are uncanny. Immigrants who had been welcomed just hours prior were excluded. Although crowds did not gather by the thousands to defend Filipinos detained at Angel Island in 1934, immigration rights advocates and lawyers leapt to their aid and worked relentlessly behind the scenes to protect them. In 2017, immigration rights advocates and attorneys did the same at airports around the country, with photographs showing them crouching on floors with their laptops, and others holding up signs for free legal services. In 1934, Eugenia de Estoita may have been only one of a few translators in San Francisco; however, in 2017, community organizers have called for translators to come to every major airport in the U.S. to offer their services, and news reports indicate that many have.

Finally, as we consider how to advocate for immigration policies that balance the best of American values, our long history as a nation built by immigrants, and our national security needs, it is imperative that we keep in mind the long, complicated histories of Filipino migrations to the United States. As we witness history unfold in front of us, it is crucial for us to critically analyze how many parts of our American narrative seem to mirror historical events of the past. Finally, as we understand issues that may not affect all of us personally, we must reflect on how similar circumstances have historically affected our communities, and we must use that knowledge to empathize with those who face systemic oppression.

Bulosan’s words in America Is In the Heart provide us with some inspiration. Despite his struggles, he had faith in his adopted country and its values. “We in America understand the many imperfections of democracy and the malignant disease corroding its very heart. We must be united in the effort to make an America in which our people can find happiness…We must live in America where there is freedom for all regardless of color, station and beliefs…We are all that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate — We are America!”