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Vasaka Singh, Majah Singh, Fauja Singh, and Ram Chand were on the same U.S. Army Transport Buford as Francisco and Ramona Velardes, also profiled in Immigrant Voices, but had a vastly different experience on Angel Island. All were men in their 20s, laborers unable to read or write English, and had received confirmation from the British Consul in Mazatlán for their safe passage and entry to the United States. In the case of Vasaka and Majah Singh, the journey to the United States had been long and arduous. At the advice of the British consul in Punjab, both had traveled to Panama in an attempt to find work, lived there for approximately a year and a half, and then traveled through Guatemala to finally land at Mazatlán, where they boarded the Buford.
After landing in October of 1913, all four men were detained at Angel Island. Commissioner of Immigration Samuel Backus and inspector W.T. Boyce began investigations on October 25. It should be noted that at this time, because of rising anti-Asian sentiment, over 50% of Indian immigrants were denied entry to the United States even though there were no exclusion laws against them. The majority were denied entry on the grounds that they were “likely to become a public charge.” This reason was effectively wielded by government officials to ensure that “undesirable classes” could not breach the “guardian of the Western gate.”
This was exactly what happened to the four men, although Vasaka Singh was also diagnosed with uncinariasis or hookworm, a “highly contagious disease” which was actually easily treated, and grounds for refusal. They could have appealed the decision, but instead the group sent a handwritten letter to W.T. Boyce requesting that, if they could not be allowed into the United States, they be deported to Ensenada, Mexico, at their own expense.
In light of the unusual situation by which the Indian refugees had been brought from Mexico on an American refugee mission, the Department of Labor advised Backus to confer with the British Consul-General of San Francisco as to where the men in question should be deported. (India was a British colony from 1750 to 1947.)
When approached with Backus’s preferred course of action, which was to deport the group to India at Britain’s expense, the British Consul-General began to question the validity of Backus’s claims that the immigrants were not fit to enter the United States. Much like Velardes, the men had obtained proof of a consul’s request for their admission to America. Despite having little money and no solid job prospects, Velardes had not been denied entry on the grounds of being “likely to become a public charge.” These men, on the other hand, had an equally strong work record and in addition, land holdings in India worth well over $1,000. Backus saw the men in question as wanderers and an undesirable class of hard laborers with “insufficient substantiation” of their land ownings and “no near relatives in the area” despite assertions of cousins in Stockton and Los Angeles for at least two of the men. They were not seen as “worthy” immigrants.
Thus, while the Velardes family was released from Angel Island and allowed to move on to San Francisco, the four Indian men were still detained on Angel Island with no hope of entering the United States. Despite the attempt of the British consulate to vouch for their good standing as a “class of British Indians,” their immigration cases were not reopened for a secondary hearing. Their plea to be deported to Ensenada was also disregarded because the Department of Labor feared that relocation to this quiet area of Mexico so close to the border would “place them in a situation advantageous to their surreptitious entry to the United States.” In the end, the group was released from Angel Island in January of 1914, when the four men agreed to pay for their own passage on the cargo ship Newport to Mazatlán, the same city they had been rescued from four months earlier.
Source: Immigration Case Files 12993/002-1, 2, 4 (V., M., F. Singh respectively); 12993/002-03 (Chand), National Archives and Records Administration San Francisco Office, San Bruno, CA.
Varsha Midha is a freshman at Yale University, and worked as an extern for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation during spring break of 2016. She is currently a prospective history major and hopes to focus on international politics and development.
Special thanks to Judy Yung for editing assistance.
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