Angel Island Immigration


Similar to Ellis Island in the east, Angel Island was the western point of entry for thousands of immigrants seeking new lives in the United States. The island, located in San Francisco Bay, is 740 acres and is now a state park. Before 1910, the island had been used by the military, first as a quarantine station and then as a staging area. In 1910, the Immigration Station was officially opened on Angel Island. While officially called an immigration station, the island was actually a detention center for Chinese immigrants.

Background to Exclusion

Chinese immigrants first began arriving in the United States in 1848. Like many immigrants, the promise of a better life in America lured more and more to journey across the Pacific. By 1851, there were over 25,000 Chinese immigrants living in California. Discrimination against Asian immigrants began almost immediately, forcing them to work at menial jobs for low pay. Rising resentment against Chinese immigrants led the federal government to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring nearly all Asian immigrants from entering the country.

Journey Across the Pacific

Most Chinese immigrants traveled by steamboat to America. Because of extreme poverty, many immigrants were forced to borrow money for the journey, agreeing to pay it back after they found employment.

At the Immigration Station

Upon arrival at Angel Island, immigrants were assigned a barracks and bunk, then subjected to a medical exam. Immigrants lived in prison-like conditions, separated according to gender and nationality. Privacy was non-existent and people were forced to sleep on metal bunks. Meals typically consisted of steamed rice and vegetables. 

Interrogations

Each immigrant was subjected to a lengthy and intensive interrogation process, which sometimes lasted for years. Two inspectors conducted interrogations. Immigrants were asked personal questions about their living conditions in China. The inspectors then asked the same questions of friends and family members. Any discrepancies could result in deportation. There was an appeal process, but it was expensive and usually unsuccessful.

Living Conditions and Poetry

Because of the poor living conditions and lack of activities, many immigrants carved poetry in wood or wrote them on walls. Poems often expressed feelings of sorrow and loneliness. Officials viewed the poems as graffiti and filled carvings with putty or painted over the walls. Because of the rapid deterioration of the putty, the carved poems are becoming more visible. Scholars are currently translating them and work is being done to conserve the remaining poems.

Closing of the Immigration Station

The Immigration Station on Angel Island was abandoned by the government in 1940 after a fire destroyed the Administration Building. China had become an ally to the United States during the Second World War and the exclusion acts of the 1800s were repealed. Angel Island was turned back over to the military and it was used as a prisoner of war processing center. After WWII, the military abandoned the island.

Rediscovery and Preservation Efforts

Angel Island became a state park in 1963. The Immigration Station was cited for demolition in the 1970s, but a park ranger discovered the poems on walls and carved in wood pieces. The Asian American community rallied and helped reserve funds to restore the barracks. The Immigration Station is now a National Historic Landmark and welcomes thousands of visitors each year. 

The Immigration Station underwent an extensive renovation from 2005-2008, reopening in February of 2009. More renovations are being planned.

Unlike Ellis Island, Angel Island was the so-called Guardian of the Western Gate and was intended to keep Asians, particularly the Chinese, from entering the United States. Much of the history of the Island was lost for a time, but because of renewed efforts, the story of Chinese immigrants and Angel Island is finally being told.

Official Angel Island Immigration Station Web Site