Know Your History: Angel Island

In celebration of Asian Pacific American month, Know Your History presents a series of profiles of prominent Asian/Pacific/Americans, chronicling an American history too often overlooked. Far from being “perpetual foreigners,” our collective history has shaped this country’s trajectory in important ways.

Ellis Island is held up as a cornerstone of American folklore, a symbol of the American dream and this country’s rich history of immigration in search of economic opportunity. The romantic imagery of this hub of immigration, the Statue of Liberty in view, is an integral part of our nation’s collective memory.

Equally important, though less revered, is California’s Angel Island. Known popularly as “the Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island played an important role as the central entry point to the United States for Asian immigrants. The island’s immigration center also has a darker history as a place of detainment and deportation for Asian immigrants during the time of Chinese exclusion and later anti-Asian immigration policies, such that it became referred to by its staff as “the Guardian of the Western Gate.” For better or worse, Angel Island is closely intertwined with AAPI history, and its records house the stories of countless Asian immigrants who came to this country in search of better fortunes.


A view of the Angel Island Immigration Facility, as viewed from the   wharf. From the Library of Congress.

Construction of the immigration center began in 1905 in an area known as China Cove. The center was designed from the outset to control and regulate the influx of Chinese immigrants, who since the middle of the 19th century had flocked in large numbers to California, drawn by the promise of the region’s gold rush. By the latter portion of the century, an economic downturn coupled with growing anti-Chinese sentiments culminated in the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Angel Island was integral in limiting the influx of Chinese immigrants (of whom only a very restricted demographic were allowed entrance), and later other Asian nationalities (as per the Immigration Act of 1924, which codified various restrictions on Asian immigration as well as Southern Europeans and Jews, in an attempt to preserve the “homogeneity” of the country).

Designed to protect American working-class laborers, these immigration  restrictions specifically targeted “low-skilled” immigrants who were perceived as a threat to the domestic workforce. As such, a small number of Asian immigrants would be allowed entrance, if they could prove that they were scholars or highly educated workers, or if they could prove that they were “paper sons and daughters,” i.e. the child of an American citizen. These exceptions led to a high demand for false papers and IDs, leading to a long process of detainment, interrogation, and processing which took place at the Angel Island facilities, through which immigration officials attempted to verify the identities of would-be immigrants. The process lasted on average two or three weeks, but in many cases could extend to months. Those who failed these examinations were deported.


A mess hall for Chinese detainees. From the Library of Congress. 


A dormitory for immigrants awaiting entrance (or deportation). From the Library of Congress. 

As the middle of the 20th century approached, changing international and domestic politics resulting in the closing of the immigration center, and services were moved to the mainland in 1940. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed as China became a U.S. ally in WWII. After the closing of the immigration center, Angel Island was put in use by the U.S. military and served as a processing center for German and Japanese war prisoners. After several forgotten decades in the post-war era, the immigration station was rediscovered in 1970 and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation was formed to preserve this piece of American history.

Despite an origin story rooted in American xenophobia, Angel Island can be remembered as more than a place of detainment and deportation. Indeed, the preservation of its story is integral in the preservation and remembrance of the stories of so many individuals and families for whom the island was the final gateway into American society.
Photographs of immigrants who passed through Angel Island, from the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

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