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Angel Island – United States Immigration

What is Angel Island?
Sometimes referred to as “the Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as an Immigration Station for immigrants entering the United States through California. Angel Island is located in the San Francisco Bay in California, and served as the immigration station from 1910 to 1940. The island is now open to the public, and is a recreation and educational center that works to preserve the history of the site and educate the community.

How was the Immigration Station different from Ellis Island?
The Immigration Station at Angel Island stands in contrast to Ellis Island for the difficulty and discrimination that those processed at the facility faced. While Ellis Island handled primarily immigrants from Europe, the immigrants that came through Angel Island were overwhelmingly from Asia. Discrimination caused many problems for Asian immigrants attempting to enter the United States, specifically those from China.

While most immigrants passing through Ellis Island were finished within hours, it was not uncommon for those at Angel Island to be detained for long periods of time. They were harshly interrogated and asked difficult and even impossibly questions to make the process more difficult. Discriminatory laws and exclusion acts passed by the government restricted the entrance of Chinese immigrants, and limited their ability to work once they entered the country.

Why were Chinese immigrants to the United States discriminated against during this time?
After the Gold Rush in California, the state’s population shot up and immigrants traveled from around the world in search of their piece of the fortune. Immigrants from China were among those who made the journey to California in hopes of a better life. Chinese laborers were vital to the construction of the transcontinental railroad, helping shape the country and accelerating its progress. The also worked in mines, fisheries, and provided general cheap labor.

When the depression hit the country in the 1870s, people became upset that the Chinese were willing to work hard for less compensation, and felt they were stealing jobs and hurting the economy. The hostility of the unemployed turned towards immigrants, leading to the Exclusion Acts.

What were the Exclusion Acts?
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law that restricted immigration, and did so on an ethnic basis. It was approved on May 6, 1892, and meant to last 10 years.

Ten years later, the Exclusion Act was extended for another 10 years by the Geary Act of 1892. After another 10 years, the law was made permanent in 1902. Later, in the 1920s, quotas based on country of origin were instated across the board. The 1924 Immigration Act was put in place to restrict immigration by nationality and social class of immigrants from Asia.

After Angel Island had already closed, China allied with the United States in World War II, finally leading to the repeal of the Exclusion Acts. Immigration from outside of the Western Hemisphere continued to be restricted, but need for political asylum and certain skills helped some immigrants with entry.

What is Angel Island Poetry?
While detained on the island, awaiting their freedom, many immigrants used poetry as an outlet for their emotions and experiences. Their poems are carved into walls of their cells, serving as a lasting reminder of their hardships and hopes, left for future immigrants to read, to give hope or commiserate. The poems were often sad or angry, venting their frustration at their situation, and symbolizing the immigration experience for those who passed through Angel Island. Most of the poetry is written in Chinese, reflecting the majority of the immigrants who were processed there or were being deported, and those who had long stays in the dormitories there.

The poetry has been studied and much of it translated, as a way of understanding the history of the Immigration Station. Some of the carvings are simply names and dates of the people contained behind the walls, but some are thoughtful poems written in a classical Chinese style .

When is National Angel Island Day?
National Angel Island Day is January 21, 2010. Declared on January 20, 2010, by President Barack Obama on the 100 year anniversary of Angel Island Immigration Station’s opening. The day honors the immigrants who passed through Angel Island Immigration Station before being allowed entry to the country, and the many people who faced discrimination and hardship there.

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Last Updated on: September 28th, 2017