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In September of 1913, the U.S.A.T. Buford was sent on a mission to Mexico to retrieve U.S. refugees from the Mexican Revolution. After making the rounds from Salina Cruz to Mazatlán, the Buford returned to San Francisco on October 19. While the majority of its passengers were American citizens, several others had taken refuge on the boat, including Francesco Velardes and his alleged wife Ramona, and four Indian men—Vasaka Singh, Majah Singh, Fauja Singh, and Ram Chand. Their different treatment and outcome at Angel Island speaks volumes about the impact of race, class, gender, and nationality on one’s chances of being admitted into the country.
Francesco Velardes was a Spaniard who had received written confirmation of his passage on the Buford from the Spanish Vice Consul in Mazatlán. He originally attempted to board the ship alone, after telling his alleged wife Ramona that only men were allowed on the ship. After lodging a complaint with the US consulate in Mazatlán, Ramona found out this was not the case. She boarded the ship with Francesco and sailed to San Francisco. The American consul, despite not seeing any legal records of their marriage, “considered the woman…to be [Francesco’s] legal wife” on the basis of his verbal affirmation.
After arriving at Angel Island and receiving a clean bill of health, Francesco and Ramona were interrogated by a Board of Special Inquiry (BSI) on October 29, 1913. Francesco, despite having no money and no job prospects in the country, was admitted after providing proof of the Spanish Vice Consul’s request for him to board the Buford. His sister-in-law, whom he claimed lived in San Francisco, was accepted as a viable source of support. The controversy instead focused on Mexican native Ramona Velardes. She was not mentioned in the consul’s written request, could not provide legal substantiation of their marriage, and the BSI interpreted Francesco’s attempt to leave the country alone as a means of evading her. However, Francesco vouched for his wife, stating that their papers had been lost in a fire. He produced evidence that they had a five-year-old child living in Colima and also secured a written affidavit of him “living with a woman for some six years” from his previous employer in Mexico. Despite the discrepancies in the couple’s testimonies regarding where the fire happened, how long they had been married, and the whereabouts of their child, the majority of the Board agreed to assume their marriage to be valid.
Complicating matters was the more serious charge of prostitution that was levied against Ramona Velardes. An American family on the Buford, headed by Jonathan Ellett, had refused to associate with Ramona Velardes because he claimed that she was a well-known prostitute in Tepic. This claim was sustained by the commander of the vessel and brought into the interrogation repeatedly. Ramona and Francesco both denied claims of her being a prostitute, but provided different alibis for her time spent before marriage. Still, the majority of the Board recommended admission while one inspector appealed the decision and asked for a secondary investigation of Ramona Velardes. The next week, the BSI reconvened to ask Ramona about her past again. Without additional new evidence offered, the Board voted to allow her entry. On November 17, 1913, Francesco and Ramona Velardes were officially admitted to the United States.
The other foreigners on the boat -Vasaka Singh, Majah Singh, Fauja Singh, and Ram Chand – 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 his 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 12993/002-10, 11 (F. and R. Velardes); 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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