Identification: Federal government’s main immigrant processing and detention center on the West Coast
Date: Operated from 1910 until 1940
Location: California’s San Francisco Bay
Significance: Angel Island served as the West Coast port of entry for Pacific Rim immigrants arriving in the United States between 1910 and 1940. The station also functioned as an interrogation and detention center during the height of national hostility toward Chinese and other Asians seeking new lives in the United States.
Angel Island immigration reception center in 1915. (Library of Congress)
Sometimes called the Ellis Island of the West, the Angel Island immigration station was not precisely a West Coast counterpart of the East Coast’s main immigrant processing center. In fact, owing to the anti-Asian immigration laws in force during the center’s years of operation, Angel Island officials often devoted themselves to keeping newcomers out of the United States, rather than welcoming them in.
The largest island in California’s San Francisco Bay, Angel Island is a natural land mass of 1.2 square miles located about one mile from the mainland of Marin County, north of San Francisco. In sharp contrast to the much smaller and mostly flat Ellis Island, Angel Island is dominated by an 800-foot-high peak. After serving for thousands of years as hunting and fishing territory for the coastal Miwok people, the island came under Spanish colonial control during the late eighteenth century and passed to the United States in 1848, after the Mexican War. In 1863, the U.S. Army established a camp on the island and built artillery installations along its shore. The island served as a departure and homecoming port for troops during the Spanish-American War and both world wars. Some prisoners of war were detained on the island, and the Army operated a quarantine station there for many years.
In 1905, the federal government decided to expand beyond military use of the island by building an immigration facility near an inlet called China Cove on the island’s northeast coast. Opened for business five years later, the Angel Island Immigration Station became the principal site where U.S. officials detained and interrogated thousands of new arrivals from China, Japan, and other Asian countries. Unlike European immigrants, who were welcomed to the United States after cursory examinations, Asian immigrants passing through Angel Island experienced targeted discrimination in the form of exclusion policies mandated by U.S. laws originally enacted during the 1880’s.
Large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States had begun in 1848, at the start of the California gold rush. Tens of thousands of Chinese workers dug for gold, built railroads, and worked for rock-bottom wages at many other jobs, often sending remittance money home to families in China. Meanwhile, they encountered widespread hostility from Americans of European ancestry, many of whom feared competition from cheap Asian labor. In 1882, the Chinese became targets of federal anti-immigration legislation in the formof the Chinese Exclusion Act, which one U.S. senator denounced as "legalization of racial discrimination.” The act barred all Chinese laborers and most other Chinese from entering the United States, and placed numerous restrictions on those already in the country. China at this time was a politically weak nation, unable to protest the discriminatory treatment its sons and daughters received in the United States, so the policy faced no effective international challenges and was later renewed.
After 1910, immigration officials at Angel Island developed elaborate procedures to identify and deport would-be immigrants from China who sought ways around the ban on their immigration. The immigrants knew that the Exclusion Act could not apply to the children of American citizens, so if Chinese Americans born in the United States had offspring in China, those children should have the legal right to enter the United States. After many public records were destroyed by San Francisco’s great earthquake and fire of 1906, it became common for young men in China to buy documents that identified them as American citizens by claiming U.S.-born Chinese men as their fathers. Immigration officials at Angel Island had no way to tell "paper sons” from real sons, so they detained many male immigrants for weeks or months and tried to expose them as frauds by quizzing them in minute detail about such topics as family histories and ancestral villages. Typical interrogations included questions about habits or facial characteristics of relatives and odd bits of information about the histories and customs of the home villages. Immigrants prepared for weeks for the dreaded Angel Island interrogations, which were conducted through interpreters and could result in deportation because of misunderstandings or miscommunication. Chinese women immigrating as wives or daughters of American-born Chinese experienced similar detentions and interrogation. Whole families in detention were frequently separated and housed according to sex, a policy that was particularly hard on young children.
A small number of immigrant detainees were held for more than two years and interrogated numerous times. Despair was common among these long-term detainees, several of whom committed suicide during the center’s years of operation. Some detainees at Angel Island responded to their imprisonment and interrogation by composing poems that they painted or carved on walls inside the immigration station’s detention barracks.
During the early twentieth century, the Japanese population in the United States was less than one quarter that of the country’s Chinese population, but the Japanese also endured anti-Asian prejudice. However, because Japan was then a more powerful country than China, the U.S. government tried to avoid formal exclusion of Japanese immigrants. Nevertheless, in 1907, a Gentlemen’s Agreement forged between the United States and Japan created severe restrictions on further Japanese immigration. At Angel Island, Japanese men and women met with detention and interrogation techniques similar to those used on the Chinese.
During the early twentieth century, many Japanese arrivals at Angel Island were "picture brides” who had never met the husbands who arranged for their passage to America. It was common for Japanese men living in the United States to find brides in Japan by employing traditional matchmakers and exchanging photographs. After surrogate weddings, the newlywed women could embark for America and present themselves to immigration officials as the wives of U.S. residents. Japanese "picture brides” were detained at Angel Island for medical examinations and other immigration procedures. If a new husband did not collect his bride in a timely fashion, the woman was deported. Some couples had to go through weddings performed by Christian ministers before the brides were formally admitted into the United States.
The federal government stopped processing immigrants through Angel Island in 1940, three years before Congress finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Angel Island was later transformed into a California state park, and its immigration station was made a National Historic Landmark. A restored barracks building houses a museum in which visitors can view the Chinese inscriptions on the walls.
Karen Manners Smith
Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University ofWashington Press, 1991. Scholarly treatment of the immigrant experience shaped through oral history and detainee poetry in Chinese and English translation.
Okihiro, Gary Y. Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994. Asians in the broader context of U.S. national and international history.
Soennichsen, John. Miwoks to Missiles: A History of Angel Island. San Francisco: Angel Island Association, 2001. Popular history of Angel Island, including military uses of the island as well as the history of the immigration station.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Highly readable background for the Asian immigrant experience in the United States. Covers local Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Filipino immigrant history.
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