Located in San Francisco Bay, the Angel Island Immigration Station served as the main immigration facility on the West Coast of the United States from 1910 to 1940. Many immigrants from China or other Asian countries were detained there for extended periods thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and other discriminatory immigration laws.
The Chinese Exclusion Era
Immigrants from China began arriving en masse in the United States in the wake of the Gold Rush. Some worked as miners; others got jobs on farms, in textile factories, or building the transcontinental railroad. At the time, the federal government did little to regulate immigration, instead leaving it up to the states. But with the growing influx of immigrants from both Europe and Asia, federal authorities decided to step in, especially after an economic downturn in the 1870s led many Americans to blame immigrant workers for their misfortunes.
Due to the growing strength of the eugenics movement—which feared the “contamination” of the white race by other races or ethnicities—Chinese immigrants were seen as a much greater threat than those from Ireland or Germany. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, which blocked entry to Chinese, Japanese and other Asian laborers brought involuntarily to the United States, as well as Asian women brought for the purposes of prostitution.
The Page Act was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from coming to the United States, limited immigration to those who already had relatives living in the country and prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.
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Angel Island: ‘Ellis Island’ of the West?
Under the Chinese Exclusion Act, U.S. immigration officials were required to inspect each Chinese passenger who arrived via boat in San Francisco before they could be allowed on land. As this process often took more than a single day, passengers were initially detained on steamships anchored in the harbor for that purpose. In 1892, a building near the harbor was converted into a “detention shed,” which often became overcrowded and unsanitary.
When Congress finally appropriated funds for the construction of an immigration facility in San Francisco, Angel Island was considered the ideal location. Historically home to the Miwok Native Americans, the 740-acre island had since housed a large Mexican cattle ranch and a U.S. military base. After numerous delays in the construction, the immigration station was hastily completed and opened on January 21, 1910 on the northeastern edge of Angel Island.
Though known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island functioned very differently from its New York counterpart. Ellis Island served as a processing center primarily for European immigrants, who were viewed as easily assimilable into American society and faced relatively few obstacles when it came to entering the United States.
By contrast, many of the immigrants who came through Angel Island were from Asian countries, primarily China, and were subject to long interrogations and detentions to prevent illegal entry.
How Things Worked at Angel Island
From 1910-40, an estimated 500,000 immigrants from 80 countries—including Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and Central and South America—were processed through Angel Island. The great majority came from China or other Asian countries, including Japan, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, Korea and Vietnam.
On arrival in San Francisco, a ship’s passengers would be separated by nationality. Europeans and first-class passengers would have their papers processed aboard ship and be able to disembark. Asian immigrants and some other groups, including Mexicans and Russians, along with those who were thought to need quarantine for medical purposes, were sent to Angel Island.
The Chinese Exclusion Act and related laws allowed entry only to a few elite occupations, as well as children of U.S. citizens. Interrogators screened potential immigrants with detailed questions, including biographical information about their families and the homes where their relatives lived. Many immigrants went to great lengths, memorizing details about false identities as skilled workers or relatives of Chinese Americans. By one estimate, some 150,000 people illegally entered the United States as “paper sons” or “paper daughters” during the Chinese Exclusion era.
Authorities at Angel Island submitted immigrants to exhaustive interrogations to try and prevent this kind of illegal entry. While processing arrivals to Ellis Island normally took a few hours or a few days at most, immigrants could spend weeks, months or even years at Angel Island. Due to its isolated location it was thought to be escape-proof, like another nearby facility: Alcatraz.
Processing Center During World War II
In August 1940, a fire destroyed the main administration building on Angel Island, and the processing of immigrants was moved to the mainland. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, but continued to limit immigration from China to just 105 people per year until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965.
During World War II, the U.S. military used the immigration station on Angel Island as a processing center for prisoners of war, as well as a detention center for hundreds of Japanese immigrants from Hawaii and the mainland United States.
Angel Island Poetry
Abandoned after the war, the buildings deteriorated until the 1970s, when the discovery of more than 200 poems in Chinese etched into the walls by long-ago immigrants inspired efforts to preserve Angel Island and commemorate its role in the history of Pacific immigration. The Angel Island Immigration Station, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997, was later renovated and opened to the public as a California state park.
Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (Oxford University Press, 2010)
History of Angel Island Immigration Station, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
Richard Lui, “Paper Sons.” CNN, November 14, 2009.