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In 1921 Congress enacted a law that restricted the number of immigrants, especially from southern and eastern Europe, the so-called “Quota Law.” The number of allowable immigrants was determined by a formula based on national quotas and in some cases, the number declined each year between 1921 and 1924. The law allowed twenty percent of the year’s allotment to be used each month, so that in some cases by the fifth month of the fiscal year, November, quotas for the year were already filled. From the beginning, at all American ports, immigrants arrived “in excess of the quota.” In the days of primitive technology processing them was frequently tedious: with each ship, officials needed to inquire from Washington, DC, whether a country’s quota had yet been filled. The result for immigrants and travelers included posting bonds and detainment of various lengths of time as well as having to return to the port of embarkation.
Among those affected were refugees from the civil war-torn former Russian empire. Because they had been making their way across Siberia, to Harbin, Manchuria, to Yokohama, Japan, the Quota Law did not present a problem until summer 1923. By mid-July, 136 Russians arriving at the Port of San Francisco were excluded from entry to the United States. Some heeded the advice of Commissioner Nagle of the AIIS by accepting deportation and turning right around and arriving in time to be included for the next month’s quota. The others appealed their cases and for the most part spent a good deal of the summer at the immigration station. A long letter in the Harbin Russian Newspaper Russkii Golos (Russian Voice, 27 October 1923), written by V. Troitsky, describes how they spent their time. Though the actual printed letter under the title, “Russian Students in Jail,” has not surfaced, a translation by AGY was found in the course of scholar Judy Yung’s research. (These “students” had come to California with the intention of resuming or starting university studies which had been interrupted by war and revolution.) Maria Sakovich abbreviated and edited the article below.
Our group, which left Harbin on the 27th of June, is being held longer than any other one. Our group is especially unlucky. Most of its members have been kept on the island for more than two months, others were released as persons belonging to exempted classes, such as doctors, surgeons, musicians, dancers, teachers, etc. The question of permitting our group to land is under the consideration of a special Higher Court after the Federal Court refused to give us permission. And while we await the Court’s decision we are kept behind bars at the Immigration station. [Many of the Russians filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus with the U.S. District Court, which were rejected. They then took their case to the U.S. Circuit Court of appeals, which also denied their appeals.]
We have before us a sort of a veil on these grates. They are put on the doors, windows, and even in the small garden where we are permitted to go for a walk twice a week. The fence of that garden is surrounded by barbed wire, though during the entire existence of the Immigration post nobody tried to escape from there. [This is not true. In 1917 three German seamen, deemed “alien enemies” by the U.S. government had escaped; so had two stowaway men: one from Poland in 1918 and one from Australia in 1919 or 1920. All were found and returned to the station.] We Russians have three rooms for 50 people. In one, we sleep on beds and nets [hammocks-?] hung around the rooms, and in the other, spend our spare time. The days pass very monotonously. We get up at 9:00 A.M. and breakfast at 9:50; have lunch at 11:00 and dinner at 4:00 P.M. [The late rising and late breakfast seem odd; others report the same early hour for dinner.] They feed us well, better than on the steamer.
At 11:00 visitors are permitted to call on us, which is a great pleasure and when they leave at 2:00 we hurry to learn from each other the latest news concerning our release which sometimes is good and at other times bad. When the news is good we all begin to feel better, hoping we will soon be released.
Part of the article is missing here; apparently the Russians expected to be leaving the immigration station soon.
[We] organized a farewell concert. We ordered candies, sweets, in the City, and made out a program after receiving the permission of the authorities. We invited the administration and all white people who were kept in the Immigration House and began the concert in the dining room at 8:00 P.M. on August 31st.
The program, described in detail, included the singing of the Russian and American national anthems and other pieces by the “Russian Student Chorus,” dances by a young man and woman, and balalaika and guitar numbers.
The concert was a success, and made a good impression on the visitors and the administration. On the morrow we were greatly disappointed. Nobody of our group was permitted to land and we were even told that some of us will be sent back, and some were sent, because we did not know the American laws by which one could apply to the Court, as we later did. The newspapers inserted many articles about us and pictures of many of us were printed on their pages. Our pictures were taken by a number of newspaper reporters.
The detention of our group at the Immigration station caused much activity in the social organizations of the city, Society for Assistance to Refugees, Ladies’ Benevolent Society, Students’ Association of Berkeley, etc. Many individuals as well as parents of some of our members also wished to help us out. So many people are trying to help us that we don’t feel ourselves lonely and as far from our mother country. On August 18th, on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, Reverend [Vladimir] Sakovich, thanks to our request, conducted a service, and the dull rooms of the Immigration house warbled with the songs of the Russian church services sung by the Students’ chorus.
Many days have passed since that time, and we already organized three plays. We performed small pieces written by Chekhov, like “The Bear,” “The Marriage Proposal,” and others, but all this, of course, cannot kill the mood we are in at the immigration house. We spend our evenings playing chess, checkers, singing, organizing competitions, reading and thus forget for a while ourselves and our troubles.
Now, after not succeeding in our case in the first court, we applied for a reconsideration of the matter and thus voluntarily condemned ourselves to stay at the immigration house for a minimum of two months and a maximum of six to eight months more. The future will disclose whether or not we will be permitted to land.
The Russian detainees did land, on October 6. The change in their fortunes was a result of the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and fire (140,000 deaths) that hit Yokohama and Tokyo in Japan on September 1. American officials realized that they could not return the refugees to their place of embarkation, which had been destroyed; instead they granted them temporary admission until their numbers could be charged to the November quota. From an original quota of 34,247 per year in 1921, the quota for Russia was reduced in 1924 to 2,248, which remained in effect for many years.
The letter listed the detained students: Troitsky, A. Fedorov, M. Maslov, A. Rubanev, B. Griselev, V. Varjensky, V. Vladikin, N. Sartory, I. Borisov, I. Suskov, K. Udakov, N. Shevliakov, P. Verjbitsky, I. Orlov, C [or D.] Orlov, P. Petrov, A. Yankovsky, T. Lavrishchev, I. Maheridze, I. Vereninov, L. Vinogradov, P. Iakverina, __ Latsenko, M. Kulakova
and some of the other detained Russians who arrived on the ships President Pierce and Shinyo Maru: V. Olesov, A. Vanishev, I. Orlov, F. Linberg, S. Zezarev, S. Galkin, F. Lasin, A. Gavrilov, I. Koriakov, __ Holinsky, __ Martinov, P. Belailev, __ [illegible], L. Nikipelova, __ Popova, __ Shevliakova, __ Gavrilova, O. Gavrilova, M. Vasilieva, S. Vasilieva, A. Koriagina, __ Savechik, __ Orlova, __ Beliaeva, __ Martinova, __ Halinskaya, __ Linberg.
Maria Sakovich is a public historian and independent scholar who researches, writes, and develops exhibits in the areas of immigration, family, and community history. She has written articles on Methodist women including Deaconess Katharine Maurer, a beloved social worker at the Angel Island Immigration Station, and “When the Enemy Landed at Angel Island,” from the National Archives and Records Administration’s website.
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