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It’s April 1918, and anti-Asian sentiment is high. Congress has just passed the 1917 Immigration Act, best-known for its creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone, which bars all immigrants from India, Burma, Siam, the Malay States, Arabia, Afghanistan, Russia, and the Pacific Islands. A young man with two names has just arrived off the Star of Lapland steamship. According to a note typed by immigration officials, “Though he states the Captain signed his name in a book when the Star of Lapland arrived at this port, this man’s name did not appear on the crew list and he was turned over to the immigration authorities as a stowaway.” His story would unravel in a series of correspondences during his 46-day-long detention at Angel Island.
According to immigration officials, Mahamad Do-Janin speaks good English and is well dressed. He’s oddly candid with his interrogator–the first thing he says to Inspector Swasey during his April 16th hearing is, “My right name is Mahamad Do-Janin, but I use the Filipino name Pedro Francisco.” Now, someone familiar with the historical context might assume that Mahamad goes by “Pedro” so he can get into the US more easily; in 1918, the Philippines are still a territory of the US, so Filipinos are considered “nationals” and not subject to immigration laws. The curious thing about Mahamad, though, is that he is completely honest about his name. “Did you ever pretend to be Filipino?” Swasey asks. “No, sir,” Mahamad replies.
Mahamad was born in Sumatra, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), to Malay parents. In response to Swasey’s question, “Do you have any Chinese blood in you?” Mahamad states that his parents are both Malay, making him a “pure Malay.” At this time, “Malay” is a racial classification for the Austronesian or “brown” people. He’s had a hard life so far, scraping by with any job he can find–he worked in the circus, which took him away from home at the age of 12. When the circus brought him to San Fernando de Union in the Philippines, he quit. He tells Swasey that he left the circus “because they gave me a very hard job.” Eventually, Mahamad made his way to Manila in 1910, where he found work as a waiter, a houseboy, and a cook. At one point during his stay in Manila, he was unemployed. During that time, he met Arthur Hunt, who put him up and gave him money while Mahamad searched for another job. Mahamad knew Arthur’s wife Mina Hunt, whom he describes as “a country woman of mine.” Arthur moved to America in 1916, and Mahamad hasn’t heard from him since.
While the Star of Lapland was anchored in Manila, Mahamad found a job working on the ship as a mess boy for a month. But, he would be out of luck again because the week before the Lapland sailed for the US, he was fired. “The captain wouldn’t take me,” he explains. What would Mahamad do now? He knew how hard it would be to find a job on another ship anchored in Manila. Weighing his options, Mahamad figured he might be able to get a job on the Lapland again if he snuck onboard. Once landed in the US, Mahamad explains, the plan would be to “try to go to sea” on “any ship that I can get on,” and work on that ship for 5-6 years. So, when the Lapland left Manila, Mahamad stowed away with the help of “another Filipino” crewmember. That crewmember was landed as soon as the ship got to America on April 11th. Meanwhile, Mahamad was detained at Angel Island after the immigration officials couldn’t find “Pedro Francisco” on the list of crewmembers. As Pedro Francisco, he was given a medical examination and was taken to the barracks, four days later, on April 15th.
This first interrogation by Swasey is on April 16th. It doesn’t take the Board of Special Inquiry long to review Mahamad’s answers, because at the end of this round of questioning, they move to deport Mahamad, addressing him directly as “a native of the geographically described territory from which immigration is prohibited by Section 3 of the Immigration law,” and because he is “a person likely to become a public charge you having arrived at this port with only a small amount of money… and have no relatives or friends [to support him] and no trade by which you can earn a living.” Indeed, Mahamad only has $10 that he saved from his job on the Lapland. Detainees at Angel Island have the option to appeal, and so Mahamad, aka Pedro, starts the long appeals process of corresponding with Washington DC and going through more rounds of questioning. All the while, he has to wait with all the other non-Chinese Asian immigrants in the confines of the barracks.
A week and a half later, Arthur Hunt, Mahamad’s old friend, sends Angel Island an urgent telegram from his new home in Fort Bliss, Texas. “My brother-in-law Pedro Francisco is being detained at your station…and if you will please wire me the requirements to be met before he is allowed to enter I will furnish him with money and transportation or whatever is necessary. Please show him this telegram,” Arthur writes.
So, two days later, after almost two weeks of waiting in the “wooden house,” the immigration officials interrogate Mahamad a second time. By now, Mahamad knows where Arthur is. He tells Swasey the story of his unemployed days in Manila when he stayed with Arthur and Mina. Swasey shows him the telegram, and asks if Mahamad really is Arthur’s brother-in-law, to which Mahamad replies, “No.”
“You are positive that Mr. Hunt is not related to you?” Swasey asks. He continues, “You are positive that his wife is not related to you?”
“No; she is a country woman of mine,” Mahamad replies. Upon reading the telegram, he explains, “his wife told him to say that because I used to call her “sister” all the time because she was a country woman of mine and just like my own sister.”
After that second hearing, the Board makes the same motion, deciding to “exclude” Mahamad for the same reasons that they listed after the first hearing. Mahamad appeals again.
Two days later, on April 29th, Edward White, Commissioner of Immigration at Angel Island, sends a note that says Mahamad’s case has been reopened for additional testimony. Then White states his opinion in a letter dated April 30th. He disagrees with the Board’s view he was likely to become a “public charge” because Mahamad appears “strong and healthy,” in addition to the fact that he speaks good English and is well dressed. “I cannot consistently support the opinion of the board,” White writes, because “in view of demand for laborers and his apparent ability to perform hard manual labor,” he believes Mahamad “will become self-supporting.” But, White does concede that “he clearly comes within that class mandatorily excluded by reason of coming from the area from which immigration is prohibited,” and concludes that “it is recommended that the excluding decision of the Board be affirmed.” Commissioner White recommends that Mahamad be deported to whence he came at the expense of the steamship company that brought him. He adds that if the Department of Labor is to follow through with the deportation, he is not sure when exactly it will happen because “the vessels belonging to the company… are now engaged in the Alaskan fishing trade.” Around the same time, White also sends a short telegram to Arthur Hunt in Texas: “Pedro is a native of Sumatra. Case is on appeal in Washington. Alien states you are not his brother in law.”
It’s unclear from Mahamad’s file what exactly happens following Commissioner White’s letter, but over a week later, on May 9th, the authorities reach an official decision: Mahamad will be deported that month. Several weeks go by, with Mahamad still confined in his quarters on Angel Island, while White and the Alaskan Packers’ Association are arranging to send Mahamad back to the Philippines on the S.S. Monongohela. In the end, as evidenced by a January 1919 decision form signed by Edward White, Mahamad is deported to the Philippines on May 27th, 1918.
Although the story of Mahamad, aka Pedro, at Angel Island has a clear beginning and unfortunate end, there are still several aspects that are murky. It’s unclear how he learned to write and speak English so fluently, since he only talks about his background as a manual laborer, and all the immigration officials confirm that he is from a lower class. Also unclear is how Arthur knew to find him at Angel Island, since Mahamad states he didn’t know Arthur’s whereabouts since 1916. Most baffling, though, is Mahamad’s honesty. He tells the simple truth at every turn, and his answers make the decision to deport him unavoidable. In his interrogation, Mahamad immediately explains his Filipino name, and he clarifies that he is indeed not Fillipino–grounds for exclusion. Then, in his appeal, when he is given the chance to confirm that Arthur is related to him and can be his financial support, Mahamad clarifies that they are actually not related at all. Perhaps he isn’t familiar with US immigration laws and policies? Or maybe he’s an honest man, even in the face of desperation.
Mahamad Do-Janin’s story illustrates interesting aspects of US immigration history, and it also sheds light on the nature of xenophobia in the US: there’s always some undesirable group that’s targeted for exclusion for one reason or another. From his “right” name, Mahamad, and his birthplace in present-day Indonesia, we can infer that he was probably Muslim. In the present day, if he were to immigrate to the US, he would face obstacles because of his religion. But, almost 100 years ago, the immigration officials did not care that he was named after the prophet Muhammad or that he was from a predominantly Muslim area of the world. Instead, the immigration officials took issue with his race and country of origin: “do you have any Chinese blood in you?” “Did you ever pretend to be Filipino?” In the end, Mahamad was barred from entering the US because he was born in the wrong country at the wrong time.
File source: Immigration Case File 17081/1-1, Mahamad Do-Janin, National Archives and Records Administration San Francisco Center, San Bruno, CA.
Skyler Chin was a freshman at Yale University researching Mahamad Do-Janin’s story as part of the Asian American Cultural Center’s spring break externship program. His grandparents came through Angel Island. His grandfather, Sam Herbert Huey, is featured on Immigrant Voices. Skyler is interested in studying Environmental Studies, Ethnicity, Race and Migration, or Political Science. At Yale, Skyler is a member of Jook Songs spoken word, Net Impact consulting, C-Sharp a capella, and the varsity fencing team. He also enjoys martial arts and songwriting–watch out for a song about Angel Island poems!
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