Hundreds of Immigrants Detained for Months in Southern California

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May 20, 2010
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More than 350 immigrants in Southern California fighting deportation have been held in detention for more than six months according to records released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials as part of a class action lawsuit.

The ACLU of Southern California sought the list of detainees in its efforts to secure hearings to determine whether immigrants held for six months or longer can be released from government custody while their cases are pending.

Many of the immigrants covered by the lawsuit are seeking political asylum, and some have been detained for years.

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During the early 20th century, federal officials detained thousands of Chinese immigrants in detention facilities (pictured here) on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

Between 1910 and 1940, more than 500,000 immigrants from China, Japan, India, Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, and Russia passed through Angel Island. 

Because of rabid anti-Chinese sentiment, federal immigration laws, most notably the 1882 Chinese Exculsion Act, severely restricted immigration from China. Thousands of Chinese defied the exclusion laws. 

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake created an unusual opportunity for Chinese immigrants. The temblor and subsequent fire destroyed many government documents, including birth certificates. Since the children of U.S. citizens were exempt from exclusion, many Chinese immigrants took advantage of the destruction of official records to enter the U.S. using false documents and claiming that they were the children of U.S. citizens.

Immigration officers detained more than 100,000 Chinese immigrants on Angel Island, where they were subject to interrogations to determine whether they were trying to enter the country illegally. 

Many Chinese immigrants were held for weeks or months while they awaited and underwent rigorous questioning. Some of them carved and wrote poems onto walls of the detention center.

The immigration station was closed after a 1940 fire, and Angel Island became a state park. In 1970, Alexander Weiss, a park ranger, discovered the poems on the walls of the abandoned detention center. The discovery led to the preservation of the immigration station, which is now a national historic landmark.