Last updated: April 20, 2021
The U.S. Immigration Station is located in Angel Island State Park on Angel Island, the largest island in California's San Francisco Bay. While the island is the home of 740 acres of pristine parkland, including beautiful beaches, picnic areas and hiking trails, it is most famous for its rich history.
In 1850, President Millard Fillmore declared Angel Island a military reserve and during the Civil War, the island was fortified to defend San Francisco Bay from potential attack by Confederate forces. Angel Island continued to be an active military installation through World War II. In 1905, the War Department transferred 20 acres of land on the island to the Department of Commerce and Labor for the establishment of an immigrant station. While the exact number is unknown, estimates suggest that between 1910 and 1940, the station processed up to one million Asian and other immigrants, including 250,000 Chinese and 150,00 Japanese, earning it a reputation as the "Ellis Island of the West." Having served as the point of entry to the United States for Asia, Angel Island remains an important place for Asian Americans whose heritage and legacy are deeply rooted in the history of the U.S. Immigration Station.
Before the 1800s, there was little immigration from Asia to the U.S. During the 19th century. However, the U.S. experienced mass migrations of immigrants from several Asian countries, particularly China. Multiple factors triggered this wave of immigration. In 1848, gold was discovered in California and throughout the 1850s, Chinese immigrants were recruited as a major source of labor for the U.S. gold mines. Many Chinese immigrants also came to the U.S. during this period to escape the Taiping Rebellion, a large-scale civil war that encompassed most of Southern China. In the 1860s, Chinese workers were recruited in large numbers from both China and the U.S. western mining industry to help build the Central Pacific Railroad's portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. During this time, Chinese laborers were also hired by the agricultural industry in California, which was suffering from severe manpower shortages and needed skilled farm workers.
By the 1870s, the U.S. economy was in a post war decline. The country experienced a series of economic crises starting with the Panic of 1873. The deflation and depression that followed caused wage levels to fall and many Americans to lose their jobs. In the West white laborers, many of them from the American South, found themselves competing for scarce jobs with Chinese immigrants who would work for lower wages. This led to rising resentment among the white population. Political and labor leaders began to use Chinese immigrants as scapegoats, blaming them for declining wages and high unemployment, and accusing them of being morally corrupt.
In response to economic fears, primarily in California, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration. The Act barred Chinese "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining" from entering the U.S. for 10 years and forbade Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. Nonlaborers from exempted classes – diplomats, travelers, merchants, students, ministers, and children of U.S. citizens – could immigrate to the United States after receiving a certification from the Chinese government. The Chinese Exclusion Act marked the first time the U.S. Congress restricted an immigrant group on the basis of race. Congress passed other exclusionary laws aimed at Chinese immigrants between 1888 and 1902, effectively reducing the number of Chinese entering the U.S.
After passage of the various Chinese exclusionary laws, Japanese immigrants became increasingly sought after by American businesses. Because of this, the number of Japanese immigrating to the U.S., particularly to the West Coast, increased rapidly. The previous animosity toward Chinese laborers was transferred to Japanese immigrants. With anti-Japanese sentiment rising in California, the U.S. and Japan came to a "Gentlemen's Agreement" in 1907. Under the Agreement, Japan voluntarily limited the immigration of Japanese laborers and the U.S. permitted the immigration of spouses of Japanese immigrants already in the U.S. By 1910, the Japanese had begun to make their presence felt in the agricultural economy of the West Coast. In a letter from Governor William D. Stephens of California to Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby dated June 19, 1920, the Governor stated that "The Japanese...have gradually developed to control, many of our important agricultural industries" and described the presence of the Japanese in California as "an even more serious problem than Chinese immigration."
San Francisco, California was a primary point of entry for Asians immigrating to the U.S., and new arrivals were housed in quarters located at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company docks on the San Francisco waterfront. The facilities at the docks, however, proved to be inadequate and unsanitary. A study authorized in 1904, recommended construction of an immigration station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. In 1905, the War Department transferred 20 acres of land on the island to the Department of Labor and Commerce for the construction of the new station. Angel Island was an ideal location for an immigration station due to its isolation from the mainland. Its location allowed for greater control over immigrant entry to the U.S., prevented immigrants on the island from communicating with immigrants on the mainland, and slowed the introduction of new or deadly diseases to the general population. The new Immigration Station opened on January 21, 1910 and became the major port of entry to the U.S. for Asians and other immigrants coming from the west.
The Immigration Station opened for partial operation on the northern neck of the island, later called China Cove. Architect Walter J. Mathews designed the Station compound to include an administration building, hospital, powerhouse, wharf, and an enclosed detention center with an outdoor area and guard tower. Since many Chinese citizens made multiple efforts to immigrate under the exempt categories in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, immigration officials at the station had to determine who had legitimate exemption documentation before allowing them entry into the United States.
When a ship arrived in San Francisco Bay, immigration officers boarded the ship to inspect each passenger's documents. Those who held proper documentation gained almost immediate entry to the United States, while those with questionable documents had to ride a ferry to Angel Island for further examination. Once they were on the island, immigration officials separated the immigrants by their race and sex, regardless of familial bonds, except for children under 12 years old who could stay with their mothers during their quarantine period. Each newly arrived immigrant received a full medical examination at the station hospital. If an examiner found evidence of a disease, the infected immigrant could not enter the U.S.
After their medical examination, healthy immigrants detained on the island awaited an immigration hearing conducted by two immigration inspectors, a stenographer, and a translator. These hearings functioned more like interrogations, as immigration officials tried to expose fraudulent claims by asking about the minute details of a person's life. Often these proceedings could take days, months, or in some instances, several years.
Thousands of immigrants detained on Angel Island endured the station's prison-like environment. Detainees resided in confined dormitories with locked doors, unable to leave without the supervision of an escort guard. Immigration officers inspected all incoming and outgoing letters, packages, and other communications from detainees and they could not receive visitors until after their cases cleared. To pass the time, some men read books or listened to records in their native languages, while women often knitted or sewed. Sometimes guards allowed women and children to stroll around the grounds. Only 10 months after immigrants began residing in the men's detention barracks, poems began to appear on the walls. Carved into the unfinished wooden walls with the ends of ink brushes, these poems often expressed Chinese immigrants' frustration, resentment, or unhappiness over their experience. Angel Island's Immigration Station continued to operate in this manner until a fire burned the administration building on August 12, 1940.
A few months later, on November 5, 1940, the Immigration Station relocated to a landlocked base in San Francisco. After the relocation, the former Immigration Station was returned to the U.S. Army. In 1946, the Army decommissioned the military installations and reduced its presence on the island. In 1955, the State of California purchased 37 acres on the island, forming Angel Island State Park. When the U.S. Military finally left in 1962, they turned the remaining federal land over to the state to become part of the park. California largely neglected the property until 1970, when Alexander Weiss, a State park ranger, discovered the poems carved on the walls of the detention barracks. Immigrants had left very few first-hand accounts detailing their experiences at the Immigration Station, which gives greater value and significance to the discovery of the Chinese poems on Angel Island. These poems carved into the walls remain as a memorial to all of those who passed through the island's harsh detention barracks on their journey to a new life in the U.S.
Today, Angel Island State Park administers the remaining buildings of the Island's original West Garrison post, which date back to the 1860s, and the East Garrison (Fort McDowell). The U.S. Immigration Station Barracks Museum administers what remains of the station. Visitors to the museum are able to explore the grounds of Angel Island's U.S. Immigration Station. Guided tours of the detention barracks are available, which include exhibits highlighting historic photographs, artifacts, and a re-creation of immigrant living quarters and interrogation rooms. Tours of the detention barracks also provide visitors with the opportunity to view the hundreds of poems carved into the wooden walls of the barracks. Ayala Cove, the Island's main point of entry and former location of the U.S. Quarantine Station, houses the Park Headquarters and the main Visitor Center. Angel Island's history encourages all visitors to appreciate the great lengths many immigrants took in order to live in, or become citizens of, the United States.
The U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island, a National Historic Landmark, is located in Angel Island State Park, on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, CA. Additional information is available on the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website.
Discover more history and culture by visiting the World War II in San Francisco Bay Area travel itinerary.
A project through the Save America's Treasures Grant Program, which helps preserve nationally significant historic properties and collections, funded work to restore the Angel Island Immigration Station in 2000. Restoration work included rehabiliation of the building and poems carved into walls of the station.