Angel Island, known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” is in San Francisco Bay and was the first stop for many immigrants between 1910-1940. The immigration station is particularly remembered for many Asian immigrants who arrived in America through Angel Island and were often treated differently because of their nationality. Before the immigration station closed in 1940, it processed nearly a million immigrants from 80 countries.
The island, just six miles from San Francisco, was initially used for ranching, quarrying rock, and even mining precious metals. It also became an important defense post, with artillery batteries built to guard the San Francisco harbor. In 1891, Angel Island served as a quarantine station. Immigrant passengers were detained and screened for diseases like smallpox. In 1900, the post became Fort McDowell, and thousands of soldiers were processed there during their military service. The post was decommissioned in 1945.
In the mid-1800s, many immigrants began arriving from China. They were seeking a better life amid economic strife back home. However, in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which put a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to America. However, non-laborers, such as diplomats, teachers, and students, were still allowed to come. Some Chinese immigrants “sold” immigration spaces reserved for their family members to other Chinese citizens who were not related. These newest immigrants became “paper” sons and daughters – meaning there were no paper records to prove or disprove they were related. To further muddy the waters, the 1906 earthquake and resulting fire in San Francisco destroyed most birth records, making it impossible to prove if someone was born inside or outside of the United States.
In 1910, the Angel Island Immigration Center opened, and the government used this facility to crack down on the practice of paperless immigrants. Immigrants were interrogated for hours, with officials asking detailed questions about their lives and homes. Their answers had to be corroborated by their families here, many of whom had moved on to different states. Thus, the process took a long time. Immigrants could appeal decisions to send them back home, and sometimes detention turned into months or even years. While they waited, immigrants passed the time in crowded bunk halls that were unsafe and unsanitary. Women and children could walk around, but male immigrants were confined to their barracks and a small, fenced area. Some carved messages of sadness, frustration, and anger on the walls. Many of those carvings are still visible today.
The situation for Japanese immigrants was a little different. They also faced hostility and discrimination, but their government provided them with documents, allowing the immigration process to move more quickly. Consequently, most immigrants who had to endure long detentions on Angel Island were Chinese.
Angel Island operated as an immigration center for 30 years, but in 1940, the administration building caught fire and burned to the ground. Though no immigrants were injured, all were relocated to the mainland.
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