Angel Island Immigration Station
Backstory and Context
Angel Island Immigration Station, also known as “Ellis Island of the West,” began construction in 1905 in an area known as China Cove. The main difference between Ellis and Angel Island was that the majority of the immigrants that traveled through Angel Island were from Asian countries, such as China, Japan, Russia, and South Asia. The facility was created to monitor the flow of Chinese immigrants entering the country. This was necessary after the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The Act only allowed entrance to merchants, clergy, diplomats, teachers, and students, making it very difficult for labor workers to enter.
The Chinese were targeted due to the large influx of immigrants that were arriving to the United States. Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat because they occupied low-wage jobs, and after the economic downfall during the 1870s, Americans experienced serious unemployment problems. This resulted in increased discrimination against the Chinese, labeling them as unsuitable Americans due to their appearance and social status. After executing a series of restrictive laws prohibiting the majority of Chinese immigration, the detention center was opened in 1910. Immigrants arrived from 84 different countries, with Chinese immigrants accounting for the largest ethnic group to enter San Francisco until 1915, when Japanese immigrants outnumbered the Chinese for the first time.
The Immigration Station had its own power, lighting and water systems, dormitories, hospital, dining facilities, staff home and administration facilities due to its remote location. It could handle up to 2,500 immigrants per day and had sleeping accommodations for up to 1,000. Images of these facilities are available on the Americans All website. The first stop on the island was the Administrative Building, where men were separated from women and children. Then followed the medical exams, which included humiliating aspects like undressing in front of strangers and being probed and prodded. During the medical exams, individuals were also tested for various diseases and parasitic infections. If at any time during the exam an individual failed they would be deported immediately or hospitalized at their own expense. After the examinations, the immigrants were assigned a detention dormitory and a bunk where they waited until the interrogation process. Some individuals expressed their fears and frustrations through messages left on the barrack walls, which are still visible today.
The length of time immigrations spent detained varied depending on how long the interrogation process lasted. For some it was only a few days and for others it lasted for months, the longest recorded stay being 22 months. Interrogations lasted awhile because many of the immigrants held at the detention center had false paperwork. Chinese immigrants, mostly males, claimed to be sons of Chinese individuals who were American citizens. Since children of citizens are also considered U.S. citizens, regardless of where they are born, it is illegal to deny them entry if they can prove citizenship. Therefore, the concept of “paper sons” or less commonly “paper daughters” was constructed-children on paper but without a real family connection. Chinese-American citizens agreed to this collaboration because they were provided with monetary incentives.
As a result, the interrogation process was established to be very difficult and grueling to weed out the fraudulent individuals. The applicant would be called before a Board of Special Inquiry, composed of two immigrant inspectors, a stenographer, and a translator, if needed. Over the course of a few hours or days, the individual would be drilled with specific questions that only real applicants would know about, for instance, their family history, location of the village, their homes and so on. However, a way around these questions was preparing them months in advance with their sponsors and memorizing the answers. To ensure that the applicant was telling the truth, witnesses from the United States, who were often other family members, were called in to corroborate the applicants story. The “family members” sometimes lived across the country, which extended the process since their testimony had to be verified before proceeding. If there was any doubt that the applicant was lying then the questioning process was prolonged and if deviation was suspected from the testimony presented by the witnesses, then the applicant and the rest of the family would be in jeopardy of deportation.
Some applicants appealed the decision of the Board, resulting in a prolonged stay at the detention center because the process was so long and tedious. Additionally, the length of stay varied depending on what country the individual was coming from. Japanese immigrants often held documentation from government officials that expedited the process of entering the country. This resulted in the majority of detainees being Chinese since they had no other alternatives but to endure the questioning. Since the goal of Angel Island was to deport as many Chinese immigrants as possible, the whole process was much more intrusive and demanding for the Chinese compared to other applicants.
The detention center was in operation for thirty years; however, there were many concerns about the sanitation and safety of the immigrants at Angel Island, which proved to be true in 1940 when the administration building burned down. As a result, all the immigrants were relocated to another facility. Since Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, the facility was not reopened as an immigration station. Instead during World War 2 it served as a prisoner of war processing center by the U.S. military. After the war, Angel Island was abandoned and deteriorated and it wasn’t until 1963 that the detention facility was converted to a state park and a museum commemorating the immigrants that passed through. However, the building was set for demolition and it wasn’t until someone discovered the verses on the wall that it was saved. Today, more than 200 poems have been recovered and restored. All but the detention centers are currently available to the public. It is approximated that one million immigrants were processed at Angel Island Immigration Station, roughly 175,000 were Chinese and 117,000 were Japanese. Between 75-80 percent entered America successfully.