Angel Island – “Ellis Island of the West”

Angel Island Immigration Station was an immigration station located in San Francisco Bay which operated from January 21, 1910 to November 5, 1940, where immigrants entering the United States were detained and interrogated. Angel Island (California) is an island in San Francisco Bay. It is currently a State Park administered by California State Parks and a California Historical Landmark. The island was originally a fishing and hunting site for Coastal Miwok Indians, then it was a haven for Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala. Later, it was developed as a cattle ranch, then, starting with the Civil War, the island served as a U.S. Army post. During the island’s Immigration Station period, the island held hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the majority from China, Japan, India, Mexico and the Philippines. The detention facility was considered ideal because of its isolated location, making it very easy to control immigrants, contain outbreaks of disease, and enforce the new immigration laws. The station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under the title Angel Island, U.S. Immigration Station, and is a National Historic Landmark.

Angel Island Immigration Station, sometimes known as “Ellis Island of the West,” began construction in 1905 in an area known as China Cove. The main difference between Ellis Island and Angel Island was that the majority of the immigrants that traveled through Angel Island were from Asian countries, such as China, Japan, and India. The facility was created to monitor the flow of Chinese immigrants entering the country after the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The Act only allowed entrance to merchants, clergy, diplomats, teachers, and students, barring laborers. The Act did give the government an idea of how to begin to regulate immigration, and realize the potential effect of immigration on the economy.

At Ellis Island, only between one and three percent of all arriving immigrants were rejected; at Angel Island, the number was about 18%. The Chinese were targeted due to the large influx of immigrants that were arriving in 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 length of time immigrants 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. This was significantly different from Ellis Island which had more relaxed regulation, and allowed immigrants to enter the United States within the day they arrived at the Island. 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 real familial ties. 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 II it served as a prisoner of war processing center by the U.S. military. After the war, Angel Island was abandoned and deteriorated. 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 until someone discovered verses the detainees wrote on the wall. Today, more than 200 poems have been recovered and restored, and 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 75-82 percent entered America successfully.

The predominantly Chinese immigrants who were detained at Angel Island were not welcomed in the United States. As recounted by one detained in 1940: “When we arrived, they locked us up like criminals in compartments like the cages at the zoo.” Held in these “cages” for weeks, often months, individuals were subjected to rounds of long and stressful interrogations to assess the legitimacy of their immigration applications. Immigrants were made to recall minute details for super heros for the proceedings may have not have spoken the particular dialect of the immigrant competently; most Chinese immigrants were from southern China at that time, many spoke Cantonese. It was difficult to pass the interrogations, and cases were appealed many times over before one could leave the island and enter the United States. Often, successful immigrants produced elaborate instruction manuals that coached fellow detainees in passing interrogations; if anyone was caught with these manuals, they would most likely be deported. Those that failed these tests often feared the shame of returning to China, and would commit suicide before leaving, or on the ships back to their homeland.

Many of the detainees turned to poetry as expression, spilling their emotions onto the very walls that contained them. Many of these poems were written in pencil and ink, or in brush, and then carved into the wooden walls or floors. Some of the poems are bitter and angry, placid and contemplative, or even hopeful.

America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is nothing I can do.

Another example:

I thoroughly hate the barbarians because they do not respect justice.
They continually promulgate harsh laws to show off their prowess.
They oppress the overseas Chinese and also violate treaties.
They examine for hookworms and practice hundreds of despotic acts.

A more hopeful example:

Twice I have passed through the blue ocean, experienced the wind and dust of journey.
Confinement in the wooden building has pained me doubly.
With a weak country, we must all join together in urgent effort.
It depends on all of us together to roll back the wild wave.

Until about ten thousand years ago, Angel Island was connected to the mainland; it was cut off by the rise in sea levels due to the end of the last ice age. From about two thousand years ago the island was a fishing and hunting site for Coast Miwok Native Americans. Similar evidence of Native American settlement is found on the nearby mainland of the Tiburon Peninsula upon Ring Mountain. In 1775, the Spanish naval vessel San Carlos made the first European entry to the San Francisco Bay under the command of Juan de Ayala. Ayala anchored off Angel Island, and gave it its modern name (Isla de los Ángeles); the bay where he anchored is now known as Ayala Cove.

In his book Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. mentions in chapter 26, that in 1834 his sailing ship collected wood from “a small island, about two leagues from the Yerba Buena anchorage, called by us ‘Wood Island’ and by the Mexicans ‘Isla de los Ángeles’ and was covered with trees to the waters edge.”

Like much of the California coast, Angel Island was subsequently used for cattle ranching. In 1863, during the American Civil War, the U.S. Army was concerned about Confederate naval raiders attacking San Francisco. It decided to construct artillery batteries on Angel Island, first at Stuart (or Stewart) Point and then Point Knox. Col. René Edward De Russy was the Chief Engineer; James Terry Gardiner was the engineer tasked with designing and supervising the work. The Army established a camp on the island (now known as Camp Reynolds or the West Garrison), and it subsequently became an infantry garrison during the US campaigns against Native American peoples in the West.

In the later 19th century, the army designated the entire island as “Fort McDowell” and developed further facilities there, including what is now called the East Garrison or Fort McDowell. A quarantine station was opened in Ayala Cove (which at the time was known as Hospital Cove) in 1891. During the Spanish–American War the island served as a discharge depot for returning troops. It continued to serve as a transit station throughout the first half of the 20th century, with troops engaged in World War I embarking and returning there. At the end of World War I the disembarkation center was commanded by William P. Burnham, who had commanded the 82nd Division in France during the war.

In 1938, hearings concerning charges of membership in a proscribed political party against labor leader Harry Bridges were held on Angel Island before Dean James Landis of Harvard Law School. After eleven weeks of testimony that filled nearly 8,500 pages, Landis found in favor of Bridges. The decision was accepted by the United States Department of Labor and Bridges was freed.

During World War II the need for troops in the Pacific far exceeded prior needs. The facilities on Angel Island were expanded and further processing was done at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Prior to the war the infrastructure had been expanded, including building the Army ferry USAT General Frank M. Coxe, which transported troops to and from Angel Island on a regular schedule. Fort McDowell was used as a detention station for Japanese, German and Italian immigrant residents of Hawaii arrested as potential fifth columnists (despite a lack of supporting evidence or access to due process). These internees were later transferred to inland Department of Justice and Army camps. Japanese and German prisoners of war were also held on the island, supplanting immigration needs, which were curtailed during the war years.

The army decommissioned the military post in 1947. In 1954 a Nike missile station was installed on the island. The missile magazines were constructed above Point Blunt on the island’s southeast corner, and the top of Mount Ida (now Mount Caroline Livermore) was flattened to make way for a helipad and the associated radar and tracking station (IFC). The missiles were removed in 1962, when the military left the island. The missile launch pad still exists, but the station atop Mount Caroline Livermore was reverted to its original contours in 2006.

The Bubonic plague posed such a threat to the U.S. that Angel island opened as a quarantine station in 1891 to screen Asian passengers and their baggage prior to landing on U.S. soil. The construction of this federally funded quarantine station was completed in 1890 at a cost of approximately $98,000. The compound contained many separate buildings including detention barracks, disinfection facilities, convalescence quarters, and an isolation hospital that was known as the “leper’s house”. Even with the new construction, the facilities were lacking in cleanliness, staffing and adequate space.

In response to the death of Wong Chut King, a Chinese immigrant who worked in a rat-infested lumberyard in Chinatown, the San Francisco Health Board quickly quarantined the local area to neutralize possible disease-causing agents. Persons suspected of having any contact with this sickness were sent to isolation facilities. The Chinese were confused by the idea of separating the entire region to control the spread of the disease because they believed it emerged from toxic vapors created in the dirt via season changes.

In response to more deaths, tissue samples were sent to Angel Island for testing to determine if they harbored Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for spreading the bubonic plague. At this time, the plague was difficult to diagnose due to other diseases, which could mask the presence of plague. Bacteriologist Joseph Kinyoun, who was stationed at Angel Island in 1899, believed that the plague would spread throughout San Francisco’s Chinatown after Y. pestis was confirmed from one of the deaths. The samples were discovered by Frank Wilson, an assistant city health officer, and Wilfred Kellog, another bacteriologist.

Even with a vaccine to inoculate and protect the residents of Chinatown, the Chinese believed that the vaccine was experimental and did not want to receive it. City officials tried to explain that it was not particularly aimed at the Chinese and that other San Francisco residents were receiving it too as a preventative measure to ensure that people do not get quarantined.

The construction of the Angel Island immigration station began in 1905 but was not used until 1910. This zone was known as China Cove. It was built for controlling Chinese entry into the United States. From 1910 to 1940, Angel Island served as an immigration station processing immigrants from 84 different countries, approximately one million being Chinese immigrants. The purpose of the immigration station was to investigate Chinese who had been denied entry from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Immigrants had to prove that they had husbands or fathers who were U.S. citizens in order not to be deported.

The immigration station at Angel Island was predominantly used to inspect, disinfect, and detain Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants who sailed across the Pacific Ocean. In addition to standard medical examinations, Chinese immigrants were inspected for parasitic diseases, and the tests for intestinal parasites required a stool specimen. Immigrants described the examination and disinfection process as brutal, humiliating, and indecent. Passengers who were found to be sick were sent to the hospital on the island until they could pass a medical examination and an immigration hearing. Investigation processes determined the length of time an immigrant would stay at the station and Chinese immigrants could be detained for a period as short as two weeks to as long as two years. A person’s racial identity and social class determined the intensity of the examination imposed, resulting in fewer white Europeans and American citizens being subjected to the inspections. When they were subjected to inspections, doctors were more diligent about adhering to sanitation practices.

A fire destroyed the administration building in 1940, and subsequent immigration processing took place in San Francisco. On November fifth of 1940, the last gathering of around 200 immigrants, including around 150 Chinese, were exchanged from Angel Island to brief quarters in San Francisco. The “Chinese Exclusion Act”, initially proposed to keep going for 10 years, was broadened and extended, and not canceled until the point that 1943 when China turned into our partner in World War II.

In 1964, the Chinese American community successfully lobbied the State of California to designate the immigration station as a State Landmark. Today, the Angel Island Immigration Station is a federally designated National Historic Landmark. It was renovated by the California State Parks, which re-opened February 16, 2009. Docent tours for school groups can be made by appointment.

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