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.
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.
Angel Island immigration reception center in 1915.
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
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through Angel Island experienced targeted discrimination in the form of exclusion policies mandated by U.S. laws originally enacted during the 1880’s.
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
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
During the early twentieth century, many Japanese arrivals at Angel Island were
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.
Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of Washington 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.