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When Harnam Singh Dhillon and his family arrived in San Francisco on the President McKinley on May 5, 1931, he didn’t anticipate the delay and barrage of questioning that he and his family would receive at the Angel Island Immigration Station. He did not expect that both he and his wife would be interrogated, or that they would ultimately be detained on Angel Island for over two weeks. As a resident of the United States for sixteen years and the father of three American-born citizens, how could he?
Dhillon, along with his wife Felicita Soto Dhillon and their children Besmata Dhillon (10 yrs), Than Dhillon (8 yrs), Ramon Dhillon (3 yrs), and Jak Singh Dhillon (1 yr) had been happily living in Niland, California, since 1913. Dhillon was of East Indian descent, but a subject of England. Felicia was of Spanish descent but also a subject of England. Felicia and Harnam were married in El Paso, in 1919. Their first three children were all born in California. As part owner of a restaurant, Dhillon cooked and waited on tables while his business partner ran the cash register. Occasionally, his wife would help with cooking and serving food. The Dhillons led a well-established life in America.
In May of 1929, the family took a trip to India to visit family. They fully intended to return to their life in America. While abroad, they had Jak, born in Hong Kong. When they finally returned to America in May of 1931, they were denied reentry.
Between the first time Dhillon landed on American shores in 1913 and 1931, extensive legal impediments had been enacted to keep undesirable immigrants out. Specifically, the Immigration Act of 1917 excluded immigrants for a number of reasons. Anything from “plotting against democratic leaders,” to “believing in polygamy,” to “being illiterate” could constitute as a reason to be barred from the country. Furthermore, the 1917 Act banned people from the Asiatic Barred Zone, a region that included India and much of Asia and the Pacific Islands.
At their hearing before a Board of Special Inquiry on May 11, Dhillon and his wife were separated from each other and asked standard questions about their family background, marriage, occupational status, politics, and literacy. The Board decided to reject Harnam because he was from the Asiatic Barred Zone and to reject Felicita and the youngest son because they were deemed “likely to become public charges” (since Harnam would not be around to support them) and afflicted with uncinariasis or hookworm infection.
That same day, Dhillon wrote to someone who he addressed as only “SIR” saying,
“My boat came to San Francisco the 5th of this month and I have been detained here for six days as well as my wife and four children as there is no proper quarters for the children and also that are causing us a lot of trouble could please tell me when we will be able to go free.
I am yours faithfully,
Harnam Singh Dhillon
He was most likely writing to the Immigration Director at Angel Island. But before he received a reply, he hired the law firm Gottenfeld Mann and Carmody to appeal his case. Starting on May 12, the firm wrote to to the Secretary of Labor in D.C. aiming to prove that Harnam was an established U.S. resident and should be authorized re-entry. They were evidently persuasive. A reply came from Assistant Commissioner General George Harris on June 4 stating:
“Department authorizes admission Dhillon Harnam Singh under seventh proviso section three and hospital treatment wife and child they to be admitted if and went cured.”
The “seventh proviso section three” allowed for returning aliens who were temporarily out of the U.S. when the Immigration Act of 1917 was passed to be re-admitted into the country.
Harnam and his three older children were confirmed for admission and released back to their lives in California. Felicita and their infant son were released four days later after they were cured of uncinariasis.
File source: Case file 30348/3-1, Harnam Dhillon, National Archives and Records Administration San Francisco Center, San Bruno, CA
Tresa Joseph is a resident of Princeton Junction, New Jersey. She is majoring in Political Science at Yale University and completed this story as an extern during spring break in 2016.
Special thanks to Judy Yung for editing assistance.
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