In 1905, construction of an Immigration Station began in the area known as China Cove. The facility, primarily a detention center, was designed to control the flow of Chinese into the country, since they were officially not welcomed with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
The first Chinese entered California in 1848, and within a few years, thousands more came, lured by the promise of Gam Sann or “Gold Mountain”. Soon, discriminatory legislation forced them out of the gold fields and into low-paying, menial jobs. They laid tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad, reclaimed swamp land in the Sacramento delta, developed shrimp and abalone fisheries, and provided cheap labor wherever there was work no other group wanted or needed.
During the 1870s, an economic downturn resulted in serious unemployment problems and led to politically motivated outcries against immigrants who would work for low wages. In reaction to states starting to pass immigration laws, the federal government asserted its authority to control immigration and passed the first immigration law in 1882. The Exclusion Acts, a series of restrictive laws prohibiting immigration, specifically targeted Chinese immigrants. Subsequent immigration laws were eventually consolidated under the Immigration Act of 1924, effecting certain nationalities and social classes of Asian immigrants.
Surrounded by public controversy from its inception, the station was finally put into operation in 1910. Immigrants arrived from approximately 84 different countries, with Chinese immigrants constituting the single largest ethnic group entering at San Francisco until 1915, when Japanese outnumbered the Chinese for the first time. Widely known as the “Ellis Island of the West” the station differed from Ellis Island in one important respect – the majority of immigrants processed on Angel Island were from Asian countries, specifically China, Japan, Russia and South Asia (in that order). Dubbed as the “Guardian of the Western Gate,” by its staff, this facility was built to help keep Chinese and eventually other Asian immigrants out of the country.
One class of Chinese the U.S. could not keep out were those who were already citizens of the United States by virtue of having a father who was a citizen. Until the mid-1920s, women did not have separate citizenship from their husbands and parents. A native-born woman lost her citizenship by marrying a foreign national. Then, as now, any person born in the U.S. is automatically a citizen, regardless of the status of their parents. Also, the children of citizens are also citizens, regardless of where they are born. Hence, any Chinese who could prove citizenship through paternal lineage could not be denied entry.
Those without true fathers in the U.S. became “paper sons” or “paper daughters”. They bought papers identifying them as children of American citizens and coaching books with detailed information on their “paper” families, which they studied in order to pass grueling interrogations. Because official records were often non-existent, an interrogation process was created to determine if the immigrants were related as they claimed. Questions could include details of the immigrant’s home and village as well as specific knowledge of his or her ancestors. Interrogations could take a long time to complete, especially if witnesses for the immigrants lived in the eastern United States. The average detention was two to three weeks, but many stayed for several months.
With little to do on an isolated island, some detainees passed the time by expressing their feelings in poetry that they brushed or carved into the wooden walls. Others simply waited, fearing deportation, yet hoping for a favorable response to their appeals. Many of the poems carved into the walls are still legible today. Poems lost to layers of paint over the years, were unknowingly, in 1931-32, documented by two immigrants, Smiley Jann and Tet Yee, who copied the poetry while they awaited ruling of their cases.
Over the years, it was suggested a number of times that the Immigration process be moved to another location. The island had been described as inadequate, expensive and inconvenient. In 1940, the government decided to move immigration services to the mainland, their decision hastened by a fire that destroyed the administration building in August of that year. On November 5th, the last group of about 200 immigrants, including about 150 Chinese, were transferred from Angel Island to temporary quarters in San Francisco.
The “Chinese Exclusion Act”, originally intended to last for 10 years, was extended and expanded, and not repealed until 1943 when China became our ally in World War II. However, following this repeal Chinese immigration control was then consolidated with an earlier 1924 Immigration Act, which allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants into the U.S. each year along with excluded classes of Chinese such as professionals and merchants. This immigration quota system was abolished by the Immigration Act of 1965, which brought every nationality onto the same immigration footing.
In 1941, following the departure of the Immigration Service from the island, the station property was returned to the Army, and it became the North Garrison of Fort McDowell. When World War II began, the old immigration barracks became a Prisoner of War Processing Center, and German and Japanese prisoners were processed there before being sent to permanent camps in the interior.
The first prisoner taken by American forces in World War II, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, was sent to Angel Island after being captured at Pearl Harbor while commanding a Japanese midget submarine. He was followed by Germans captured in North Africa , and Japanese captured in the Pacific. In 1942, the North Garrison was greatly expanded, with the construction of several barracks, a mess hall and a recreation building, making North Garrison a post in miniature.
After the war, the Immigration Station now abandoned, fell into disrepair. Like many other unused buildings on the Island, the Station was scheduled to be demolished.
In 1970, Park Ranger Alexander Weiss toured the building with flashlight in hand and noted the Chinese characters carved into the walls. Through his efforts, those of Paul Chow and the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee (AIISHAC), special legislation was passed in 1976 providing $250,000 for preservation and restoration: the detention barracks, and its Chinese poetry saved.
AIISHAC created the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) to continue preservation and educational efforts regarding the site. AIISF is the non-profit partner of California State Parks and the National Park Service in the work to restore the historic Immigration Station at Angel Island. AIISF’s mission includes both the preservation of the site and education about the role of Pacific Rim immigration in U.S. history.
Unlike Ellis Island, Angel Island State Park does not house immigration records accumulated during the time the Immigration Station was active on the island. Those valuable records are preserved and are available at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), whether you want to see if they contain clues about your family’s history, need to prove a veteran’s military service, or are researching an historical topic that interests you.
The headquarters of the National Archives is located in Washington DC. In addition, a system of Regional Records Services facilities and Presidential libraries spans the entire country. Information on locations and hours can be found at NARA Facilities.
The California State Parks Archive – United States Immigration Station Photos
The Hart Hyatt North – Photo Collection. A collection of photographs donated to UC Berkeley by Hart Hyatt North, the first Immigration Commissioner on Angel Island. The majority of the interior photos appear to pre-date the stations opening in 1910 showing no signs of immigrant habitation.