“We’re on Powell Street in Richford with Steve Perkins, the executive director of the Vermont Historical Society,” Mike Hoey said. “Steve, we’re here this week because of something that used to be located right here that an awful lot of people in our region probably have no idea ever existed.”

“Yeah, very true, Mike — and, you know, something of national significance to the United States and somewhat to Canada as well,” Perkins said. “We are standing on the site of what was a Chinese detention center, and it was here from about 1903 to 1913, so for about a decade, this was one of only four (Chinese) detention centers along the entire land border with Canada.”

“One of the two U.S. Presidents to have been born in Vermont had a very significant role in this facility having been built here,” Hoey noted.

“Absolutely, Mike — so, Chester Arthur — the year specifically was 1882,” Perkins continued. “The United States Congress passed, and he signed into law, the Chinese Exclusion Act. This is the first — and really, only — time in U.S. history where we’ve said to one group of people, ‘based on your country of origin, we’re completely excluding you’.

“It excluded all Chinese immigration to the United States for a term of ten years. That was the compromise, and that’s why Chester Arthur signed it, because it was a term of only ten years. It was renewed in 1892, and then in 1902 it was made permanent.”

“Right,” Hoey said. “Not very long after that is when this detention center would have been built.”

“Exactly, so then you had to have processing facilities to try to catch and send back Chinese immigrants — and a lot of Chinese were trying to come here,” Perkins observed. “Chinese would enter Canada (and) take the Canadian Pacific Railway all the way over here. Richford was one of the busiest border crossings, if not the busiest, in New England at the time, and so it made sense to have a detention facility here.

“The big immigration ports of San Francisco and New York and Los Angeles, for example, all had processing facilities, and ultimately, that’s what happened here. (Federal officials decided) to move all Chinese immigration processing to Boston. Then in 1924, (the Chinese Exclusion Act) got expanded even more, and they started applying quotas to other countries and then started taking rights away from Chinese who are already in the country.

“And it wasn’t until 1943, with World War II well underway when China became our ally, that Congress said, ‘well, maybe we should rethink this’. So, they put (in place) a quota of 105 Chinese immigrants a year. Of course, all of this was wiped out in 1964, and we got rid of country-by-country quotas.”

“The Richford Historical Society has some documentation — including, I believe, a photograph of an interpreter who worked there,” Hoey said. “If I’m remembering that right.”

“They did, yeah,” Perkins agreed. “They employed Hong Phoi, who was an interpreter, to work with the folks as they came through. They have a picture of him at the Historical Society and also — it’s a grainy image — but an image of the Chinese detention center with some Chinese nationals standing outside of it, so documentation is few and far between, but I think it’s an important story for us to tell.”