Two hands are painted on the wall mark the area where detainees are supposed put their own before they were processed at the former INS building. 
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Two hands are painted on the wall mark the area where detainees are supposed put their own before they were processed at the former INS building.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

The dark history behind this old Chinatown building

People may know about the immigration detention center in Tacoma. But one of the earlier detention centers was in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

It was built to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act that was signed into law 135 years ago this week. The law prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country.

It was subsequently repealed, but it became the foundation for future immigration policies in the U.S. that still resonates today.

The INS building on Dearborn and Airport Way was built in 1932. It was a one-stop facility for all things immigration: citizenship ceremonies, immigration proceedings and detention.

Rahul Gupta, education and tour director at the Wing Luke Museum, notes the building has been converted into a workspace for artists, but there are plenty of remnants from its past. In the basement there’s a yellow line leading from the back to the office where immigrants would be processed for detention. “They had to walk one foot on either side of the yellow line,” Gupta said.


At the end of the line there’s a wall with two painted hands, marking where they’re supposed to place their own.

“They’d be patted down. Anything was bagged and tagged. And they went in there for processing,” Gupta said. “From there they’d be taken to the men’s ward or to the women’s.”

And the wait began.

Gupta said the center was built to hold Chinese men as the Chinese Exclusion Act was enforced. Later it would be Japanese men, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Over the decades, the immigrants detained here would change. But the policy in general remained constant, said Gupta. “Every subsequent immigration law that comes into being uses exclusion or has exclusion as the base.”


On the second floor of the building there are two courtyards that look out to the city. This was the space where detainees got some fresh air.

“If you look along the bricks, you’ll see black tar,” Gupta said, explaining that on some days it would get so hot the tar softened. People would dip a stick in the tar and make their mark. Many wrote their names or their home countries.

“You see Vietnamese detainees, Latino detainees. You’ll see Muslim names in the other courtyard. Chinese,” Gupta said. “So this wasn’t just a place for the Chinese. It continues as each period has its own 'undesirables.'”

Gupta describes the immigration system as an eddy in the water. The people detained are stuck for months, sometimes years, until an official decision grants them entry into the country.

But the majority at this center, he said, were shipped out. And what’s left are their names on the walls.