A Federal Immigration Building With a Dark Past

In post-war San Francisco, discrimination against Chinese immigrants resulted in tragedy

United States Appraisers Building
The facade of the U.S. Appraiser's Building on 630 Sansome Street in San Francisco, California Library of Congress

From the outside, the U.S. Appraiser’s Building in downtown San Francisco is austere and bureaucratic, rising 16 stories tall at 630 Sansome Street. Distinctive for its time, it now resembles federal buildings in other cities around the country. But on the inside, the building carries a troubling history that resonates today, even though its past is largely lost to memory.

Ever since its completion near the end of World War II, 630 Sansome Street has been home to the bureaucracy of immigration, a shifting web of government agencies whose policies have changed over time, like the nation’s anxieties about its borders. In the post-war years, and especially for San Francisco’s Chinese community, the building was synonymous with the notorious detention quarters located on the upper floors—and the suicide and hunger strike that sparked public outrage.

On September 21, 1948, Leong Bick Ha, a 32-year-old Chinese woman, hanged herself from a shower pipe in the building’s detention quarters. She had undergone a thorough examination in China, waiting several months to receive permission to enter the U.S. “Coming from afar to join her husband, she had already borne much suffering,” wrote  San Francisco’s Chinese press. But when she arrived in the city, it was only to be detained at Sansome Street for three months by immigration officials. Separated from her 15-year-old son, who was held in another part of the building, “the torment in her mind was inconceivable.”

Ha’s death was hardly the first incident at 630 Sansome Street. Just three months earlier, Huang Lai, a 41-year-old Chinese woman, climbed from the window of her cell and attempted to jump from a parapet on the building’s 14th floor. After six months’ detention, the constant threat of deportation, and a grueling interrogation in a language she barely knew, Lai had given up. It took San Francisco police three hours to rescue her. Crowds witnessed the ordeal from the sidewalk.

The detention quarters at Sansome Street were a legacy of Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West,” the major point of entry for immigrants who had crossed the Pacific, until a fire shut it down in 1940. Between 1910 and 1940, “about a half a million people entered or departed the country through Angel Island,” says Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. As Lee and her co-author Judy Yung show in Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, “the island,” as it was known locally, wasn’t comparable to its counterpart in the East. Whereas Ellis Island came to symbolize an open-door nation of immigrants, the purpose of Angel Island was to close America’s gates, to restrict entry to newcomers from Asia. On Angel Island, the entire process was racially driven: Europeans were separated from Asians, and Chinese were segregated from Japanese and other nationalities. Most immigrants were held for a few hours—at most a few days—while inspectors performed routine checks for signs of disease, criminality, insanity or disability.

But not the Chinese, who were detained for longer periods pending intensive interrogation and verification of their eligibility to land. The majority stayed for three to four weeks, but many waited much longer, some even enduring years of confinement. A 1909 report, prepared for the Secretary of Labor as construction at Angel Island was underway, described the island’s “delightful. . .scenic, climactic, and health conditions.” The San Francisco Chronicle boasted of the “finest Immigration Station in the world.” But this rhetoric belied reality. Housing was cramped and poorly insulated, and inspectors reserved harsh, cruel methods for Chinese detainees. “The only place in the United States where a man is guilty until he is proved innocent is at the immigration station,” remarked Charles Jung, who worked as an interpreter on the island between 1926 and 1930.

Even in the decades prior to Angel Island’s existence, anti-Chinese violence had been a constant in the development of California and the West. The mid-19th century Gold Rush attracted Chinese laborers who sought jobs with mining companies or along an expanding network of railroads. In response, nativist movements and their members pressured employers to fire Chinese workers and lobbied U.S. officials to enact anti-Chinese measures. Years of populist agitation against the Chinese culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was signed into federal law in 1882. It was the first major federal law restricting immigration to the United States—and the first to target a specific group of immigrants.

Although the law banned most Chinese immigration and prohibited Chinese naturalization, an estimated 303,000 Chinese still entered the country during the exclusion period under its exempted categories: returning laborers, merchants, U.S. citizens, and the wives, sons and daughters of merchants. Yet immigration officials, tasked with enforcing the restrictions, treated all Chinese people with suspicion and contempt. Detention facilities resembled prisons, and the Chinese, who spoke little or no English, were expected to prove their identities and marital relationships in punishing interrogations.

The 1940 fire at Angel Island, blamed on an overloaded circuit in the basement of the administration building, destroyed the Immigration Station. The Immigration Naturalization Service (INS), the precursor to today’s Department of Homeland Security, scrambled to find a place to house detainees. The decision was to relocate to the Appraiser’s Building at Sansome Street, which was slated to open later that year. Wartime shortages of manpower and materials delayed construction. In 1944, following years of makeshift arrangements at a building on Silver Avenue, the INS made its permanent move. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, an architect known for his National Park lodges, train stations, and the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint, designed the soaring structure under the auspices of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. Floors 10 through 16 were reserved for INS offices and “temporary housing for new immigrant arrivals awaiting entry processing.”

World War II transformed the status of the Chinese in America; an estimated 13,000 Chinese Americans enlisted in the armed forces and China, a U.S. ally, successfully pressured Congress to end exclusion in 1943. But conditions for Chinese immigrants at Sansome Street continued as if nothing had changed.

Leong Bick Ha arrived in San Francisco in 1948 to join her husband, former U.S. Army sergeant Ng Bak Teung of New York. He secured the right to bring her into the country under the War Brides Act, which waived immigration quotas for women who married American GIs. Amended in 1947 to include Asian spouses, the War Brides Act was supposed to expedite her move to the U.S. Yet Ha waited for three months at Sansome Street, separated from her son, while authorities investigated her marital status. Performing poorly at her interrogation, a nerve-wracking experience, she was told that her marriage could not be confirmed and deportation was imminent.

The Chinese-language press in San Francisco erupted in fury at the news of Ha’s death, citing “racial discrimination and the unreasonable immigration procedures that put stress on Chinese immigrants,” write historians Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, offering a roundup of Chinese editorial opinion in translation that appears in Chinese American Voices from the Gold Rush to the Present, a documentary collection. Ha’s story even traveled to China, where accounts of suffering at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities were not uncommon.

At Sansome Street, all 104 women detainees, the majority Chinese war brides like Ha, launched a hunger strike to protest immigration policies. Officials tried to downplay events, telling reporters that “the women did not eat because that was the way Chinese mourned the deceased,” says historian Xiaojian Zhao in her book Remaking Chinese America: Immigration: Family, and Community. “That these middle-aged Chinese country women would take group action against an agency of the U.S. government was inconceivable to the INS,” she adds. It wasn’t long before the American Civil Liberties Union got involved. Facing a storm of criticism from lawyers, local politicians, and the public, San Francisco’s INS district office shuttered the detention quarters in 1954, while keeping its offices in the building.

Today, 630 Sansome Street teems with activity. Run by the Department of Homeland Security, the building houses a number of federal immigration agencies. Citizenship oaths and interviews are administered to new and aspiring Americans on the sixth floor. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has its northern California field office on the fifth. Deportation cases are heard in the fourth-floor courtroom, where nervous energy and the sounds of Spanish fill the air. It’s one of the busiest immigration courts in the country, handling about 10,000 new cases a year, many from those seeking asylum from poverty and bloodshed in Central America.

“U.S. immigration history is often told as a narrative of progressive reform,” says Lee. Xenophobic attitudes that began with the Exclusion Act are said to have waned in the postwar period. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished national origins quotas restricting non-European immigration.

But reality tells a different story. Dramatic ICE raids might capture headlines, but for immigrants at Sansome Street, encounters with federal power are far more quotidian, if no less cruel. The building belongs to the slow, grinding immigration bureaucracy, and its history shows how anxieties have shifted, from the country’s western shores to its southern borders. Detention remains a key component of American immigration policy, but instead of the old system—under federal control and limited to major ports of entry—today, it’s often done through the private sector.

As CIVIC, an organization that monitors conditions at detention centers around the country, states on its website, “legal permanent residents with longstanding family and community ties, asylum-seekers, and victims of human trafficking are detained for weeks, months, and sometimes years.” Abuses at detention centers, many run by for-profit prison corporations are rampant, according to advocates. Immigrants in ICE custody have died of neglect and sexual assault is pervasive. The average daily population of detained immigrants was 5,000 in 1994. In 2014, it was 34,000, says the Detention Watch Network. A 2016 DHS report put the total number of immigrant detainees at 352,882. The U.S. is now home to the largest immigrant detention system in the world.

Today at Sansome Street, immigrants from Central America, fleeing poverty or seeking opportunity, find themselves in bureaucratic limbo, just as the Chinese once did. The building stands as a reminder that the troubled past isn’t past at all.

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