Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Angel Island, California--"The Ellis Island of the West"

(left) US Immigration Official examining a Chinese emigrant at Angel Island.  The facility was operating from 1910 to 1940.

  In 2009, The Angel Island Emigration Center celebrated its reopening as a 
tourist site, renovated but also preserved to reflect the original examination rooms where so many future Americans were detained for questioning and medical checks.  The Chinese and other Asian emigrants  faced tougher odds to get into America than their occidental counterparts who came in the same manner off of first-and-second class ships calling on the port of San Francisco.    

From The Angel Island Immigration Station Website. 

 "Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, millions of people — in numbers which have not been seen since — came to America in pursuit of a better, freer life. On the east coast, most of the huddled masses were met by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. On the west coast, between 1910 and 1940, most were met by the wooden buildings of Angel Island. These immigrants were Australians and New Zealanders, Canadians, Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Russians, and in particular, Asians. There, during this period of the great migrations, they would meet with a reception quite unlike that given to European immigrants on the East Coast. The reasons for this reception, and the story of this journey, as usual, have their roots in the past."

Chinese immigration began with the California Gold Rush. Chinese emigrants faced discrimination but many persevered until the Economic Panic of 1873 started a great deal of fear amongst white and non-Asian settlers in California against Asians. 

In  1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.  This was kept on the books for sixty years, with some modifications for family members related to someone in the United States or a few select occupations such as diplomats, professors, clergy men, merchants etc.

  Japanese emigration was also regulated by a “Gentlemen’s Agreement" between the two governments in 1907. In 1917 an  “Asiatic Barred Zone” barred citizens and colonial subjects in southeast Asia and India from emigrating to the United States.  Previously, only the Chinese had been excluded.

 (From the same Angel Island Website) "Circumventing the Chinese Exclusion Act became a first order concern for most immigrants from China...Many Chinese immigrants resorted to buying false identities at great cost, which allowed them to immigrate as either children of exempt classes or children of natives. In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed municipal records which created an opportunity for the city’s Chinese residents to claim that they were born here and therefore were American citizens. As citizens Chinese could bring their children to this country, and on return visits to their ancestral villages, claim new children had been born to them. Some of these were “paper sons” or less frequently “paper daughters” — children on paper only without a direct family connection. These paper children were in effect “slots” which people could sell to allow new immigrants to come to this country."

"To counter this practice, Immigration inspectors developed grueling interrogations, and by 1910 they had refined this procedure. The immigrant applicant would be called before a Board of Special Inquiry, composed of two immigrant inspectors, a stenographer, and a translator, when needed. Over the course of several hours or even days, the applicant would be asked about minute details only a genuine applicant would know about — their family history, location of the village, their homes. These questions had been anticipated and thus, irrespective of the true nature of the relationship to their sponsor, the applicant had prepared months in advance by committing these details to memory. Their witnesses — other family members living in the United States — would be called forward to corroborate these answers. Any deviation from the testimony would prolong questioning or throw the entire case into doubt and put the applicant at risk of deportation, and possibly everyone else in the family connected to the applicant as well. These details had to be remembered for life. Because of return trips to China, the risk of random immigration raids and identity card checks on the street, a paper son often had to keep these details alive throughout their life."

All foreign-born people faced rigid quotas after the 1924 Emigration Act.  The Act gave higher quotas, however, to nations like Great Britain, France, Scandinavian nations, etc.   

Finally, the  Nationality Act of 1965 superseded the 1924 act (and abolished all  quotas affecting Europeans). Chinese Americans and other Asian emigrants have made great strides in education and upward-mobility ever since.  A 100th Anniversary celebration of Angel Island and its role in American history will be  held in San Francisco on Friday, October 23. 


  1. Below: "Angel Island", located in San Francisco Bay just north of the city. The Immigration Center is located in the lower right of the picture, on the north end of the island.

  2. I was touched by the fact that they wrote poetry, even as they were being discriminated against. A person can be denigrated by fools, but their hearts can never be touched.

    Oh, beautiful America.........

  3. Go back to the beginning, the very beginning of our history. The atrocities we have committed make me cringe.
    That's why I said "Oh beautiful America......"

  4. Each wave of immigration has horror stories all its own to tell. I did some reading once about the sorts of things the Irish immigrants who came during the potato famine endured. The Asian people in this post too had to over come a great deal.

  5. That's poetic as well, Lucija. What spirits these people had--so far away from their origianal homes and bringing their identities intact to a new and strange place.

  6. Iti s an amazing story, or stories Jack. The little selections and the video just scatch the surface.

  7. The "New World" was quickly visited by the crimes of the old--from all directions I'm afraid.

  8. So true! It does bring perspective to our modern lives, Mary Ellen. Both these groups of people lived lives of such dire deprivation they would wonder what any of us had to complain about in this modern world...although it is so human to complain.