Words of wisdom shape the immigrant experience

One of the phrases on Angel Island designed to remind visitors of the immigrant experience. Photo by Maile Greenhill

SAN FRANCISCO — This island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay captured the imagination of thousands of visitors each year.  The inmates here faced harsh conditions and suffered isolation from their family and loved ones while the U.S. government decided what to do with them.  Angel Island, now a California State Park, was once the “Ellis Island of the West” and served as the entry point for thousands of immigrants as they made their journey to the United States between 1910 and 1940.  Today the island is a tribute to these immigrants.

The emotional journey of these immigrants is today inscribed on gray stone overlooking the bay.  The words included in this memorial are: courage, sacrifice, segregation, confinement, frustration, anger, bravery, loneliness, appeals, hearings, examinations, denials, perseverance, entry, human spirit, opportunities, dreams, hope, fears, acceptance, rejection, civil rights, realities and social justice.  These words, taken together, help to illustrate the immigrant experience on Angel Island.

The United States Immigration Station on Angel Island opened in 1910 and processed nearly 175,000 immigrants from China and 80 other countries until its closure in 1940.  The experiences of these immigrants varied based on their country of origin and social status.  Wealthier and European immigrants were not subject to the intense scrutiny as the Chinese, most of whom traveled in the steerage section of the ships.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese from entering the U.S. except in special circumstances, such as those who came as students or teachers. However, one of the exceptions exploited by the immigrants to get clearance to enter the United States was to show that one was “native,” said tour guide Sam Louie. That native-born person then would claim others as family members, which led to the idea of “paper sons,” a practice that gained traction after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco led to a fire and thousands of city records were lost or burned.

To address the exploitation of the “native” loophole, the U.S. government interrogated immigrants at the Immigration Station, looking for discrepancies in their stories that would then lead to deportation.  The questions could be as routine as to inquire about the name of an immigrant’s maternal grandmother or as extreme as asking which direction the front door of their home opened.  The long application and appeal process sometimes led to immigrants being detained anywhere from two weeks to almost two years.

Angel Island provides a great view of the San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Photo by Maile Greenhill

Besides being home to the Immigration Station,  Angel Island also served as a Civil War Union outcropping, and a processing station for soldiers serving in the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. Later it became a Nike missile base for the U.S. military during the Cold War and finally a state park in late 1962.