Immigration Detention Then & Now: Reflections on Pilgrimage to Angel Island

This past weekend, a small group of church members from FirstPres Hayward joined around 200 others from around the Bay for a pilgrimage to Angel Island, organized by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, Asian Prisoner Support Committee, and Buena Vista United Methodist Church.

As a Sanctuary congregation and a faith community that is committed to upholding the dignity of all people, FirstPres continues to follow God’s Spirit into radically loving the immigrants among us.

Journeying to Angel Island’s Immigration Immigration Station- a facility that operated from 1910 to 1940 and detained some 175,000 Chinese immigrants during that time- brought us closer to both the historic and present forces of xenophobia, white supremacy, exclusion, exploitation, and injustice which undergird immigration policy and detention in our country.

Throughout the day, we were invited to engage in the following ways:

  • Listening
  • Remembering
  • Mourning
  • Honoring
  • Solidarity

By engaging in guided meditations, opening and closing ceremonies, a tour of the immigration station, and other interactive activities, we experienced a sacred time.

We listened. We listened to the cries of lament from many of the Chinese detainees throughout the decades, whose poems were etched onto the walls of the Immigration Station. These poems bore witness to the brutal truths of their experience:

Poems engraved into the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station

“For what reason must I sit in jail? /It is only because my country is weak and / my family poor… Even if my petition is approved and I can enter the country / When can I return to the Mountains of Tang / with a full load?” (Poem 34).

“An orphan body drifted to this place / Unlucky if I’m deported, my parents would be sad / Interest fees would double and redouble/ I don’t know when we would pay the lender.” (Poem 15)

“Family poverty forced me to come and suffer this bitterness / It’s difficult to empty one’s heart of anger and sorrow/If I could but enter San Francisco after on exam,/ It wouldn’t erase the barbarians’ one hundred lies” (Poem 22)

We also listened to the stories of those experiencing incarceration today, primarily Southeast Asian community members, who simultaneously experience a biased criminal justice system and harsh immigration system. We heard about the the difficulties they faced growing up as refugees and children of refugees, the unfair sentencing practices they faced in the system, the silencing of their experiences in conversations about mass incarceration. And we heard stories about serving many years of a prison sentence and being released, only to face further detention and threat of deportation in immigration facilities.

We listened to stories of struggle- from immigrants then and now.

We remembered. We remembered the unequal treatment that Chinese immigrants experienced at Angel Island- getting less money for meals, longer detention times, harsher treatment, inadequate sanitary conditions, and more intensive processing hearings than their European counterparts.

We remembered the illnesses and health issues Chinese immigrants faced while in detention, the prodding and poking that they endured due to fear of those carrying hookworm.

We remembered the children- the experiences of many young, Chinese boys who were separated from their families. We remembered the wives and husbands who were separated from one another.

Medical Examination of young boys at Angel Island

We remembered the lengthy interrogations that many Chinese immigrants would encounter, and the hundreds of questions that they would have to answer to qualify to enter the country.

We remembered the experiences of Chinese “paper sons,” Japanese picture brides, Korean refugee students, South Asian political activists, Russian and Jewish refugees, Mexican families, Filipino repatriates, and many others from around the world who left everything to pursue hopes of a better life.

And we remembered that the struggle and the resilience of immigrants in our nation is interwoven into the fabric of our country’s story. It is part of who we are. And it continues today.

We mourned. We mourned the false mythology of the American Dream, and the ways that many immigrants, both then and now, experience tremendous pain, grief, loss, disappointment, and trauma in their pursuit of this mythology.

View from the Immigration Station- Photo by Andre Chan

We mourned the forces of war, conflict, poverty, and violence which caused them to leave their homes in the first place, and the ways that those same forces continue to drive people to flee their native countries today.

We mourned the forces of xenophobia and white supremacy that drove narratives of “Yellow Peril” and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, while also driving other historical events such as Japanese internment during World War II, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, and the recent travel bans of the Trump Administration. We mourned recent statements from our president demonizing Muslims, criminalizing Mexicans, and demeaning immigrants from “shithole countries.”

Barracks at Angel island, with overcrowded bunks

We mourned the reality of separated families as a longstanding, historic reality in our country, as we remembered the children separated from parents, the spouses separated from one another, and the many young, unaccompanied youth who both came to the U.S. through Angel Island and still cross our borders today.

We mourned the ways that our country’s legacy of white supremacy has led to many communities of color to feel perpetually like “aliens” and outsiders, even in their own homes.

We mourned the loss of names, identities, language, familial ties, and stories across borders and citizenship.

We honored. We honored the First ancestors of this land- the Miwok, Patwin, Ohlone, Yokuts, and other tribes- and asked for their permission to be on their sacred land.

We honored African American ancestors- who despite being kidnapped, enslaved, and sold for profit- found ways to overcome oppression, resist injustice, and fight for collective liberation

We honored Chinese ancestors who, despite decades of family separations, chose to use voice and resources to protest exclusion laws, engrave their stories into history, and petition and riot their way to fighting for better treatment of immigrants.

Honoring Ceremony- Photo by Andre Chan

We honored the strength, beauty, and legacy of particular ethnic communities who immigrated throughout the generations- from Japanese to South Asian, from Korean to Jewish, from Mexican to Filipinx, from Southeast Asian to Pacific Islander. We honored freedom fighters and revolutionaries, refugees and union organizers, fieldworkers and railroad workers.

We honored both struggle and survival.

We chose solidarity. We joined a community of people- standing together- for the rights, dignity, and liberation of all immigrants. We remembered that our collective liberation is bound up together, and we committed ourselves not only to remember the past, but to respond today.

Amazingly, this past week, FirstPres gained the privilege of providing housing to one of the unaccompanied immigrant youth in our community (A.L.)- a 19 year old from Guatemala who is finishing his senior year at Tennyson High School.

Members of FirstPres welcome A.L. and celebrate his birthday!

As we welcomed him this past week and learned his story, I was reminded of the countless numbers of young, Chinese teenagers who, like A.L., left their families behind, pursued a Dream, and exhibited extreme courage and perseverance in the face of discrimination, a foreign culture and language, poverty, legal barriers, and hardship.

I am grateful that I, along with the whole FirstPres family, get to experience both the privilege of journeying alongside A.L. and seeing his resilience, as well as the joy of “entertaining angels” (Hebrews 13:2) by showing hospitality to him.


In response to our pilgrimage experience, some of us wrote Cinquain poems, following in the footsteps of our ancestors who expressed their journey through poetry and creativity.

Here is my poem of response:

Pilgrimage- 
Meaningful footprints
Learning. Mourning. Hoping.
Choose memory, not invisibility
Movement.