The little-known Asian American history preserved on Angel Island
From afar, Angel Island appears a vision of paradise.
Yes, but: Run your fingers along the plaster peeling off the building's walls, and you'll find a different story.
- Green algae and spreading mold. Pencil drawings of birds and etched columns of poetry. The Chinese characters carry a haunting lament: "When can I get out of here?"
- In U.S. history, Ellis Island is the one that dominates conversations about immigration. On the opposite coast, Angel Island stood in stark contrast — an immigration port that served as over 500,000 people's first point of contact between 1910 and 1940.
Between the lines: When I first visited the old station — now a state park — it was eye-opening. This was history I never knew despite growing up in the Bay Area.
- We'd learned so much about Ellis Island in school, but not one word about the half a million people who passed through Angel Island.
How it happened: In the early 1900s, as anti-Chinese sentiment rose to a fervor, Angel Island became an operation for "screening" and deporting Chinese immigrants, many of whom were attempting to enter the U.S. as "paper sons" due to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
- Like many of today's asylum seekers, these immigrants traveled to America in search of security after suffering war and violence.
- Instead, they were forced into detention for weeks, months and sometimes years — much longer than European immigrants, who were also less likely to be deported from the processing center.
- There, they endured invasive medical exams, indefinite quarantine, repeated interrogations, family separation and disease due to the facilities' lack of hygiene.
Engraved on the walls: "With a hundred kinds of oppressive laws, they mistreat us Chinese. / It is still not enough after being interrogated and investigated several times; / We also have to have our chests examined while naked."
Details: Immigration officials mandated segregation of Asians and non-Asians throughout the entire station, including in the barracks, dining halls and hospital entrances.
- Rooms meant to house 60 people at most had over 200 people crammed inside. Doors to the barracks were locked, and armed guards always patrolled the premises.
- Detainees were only allowed out for meals and exercise, typically in a dirt area enclosed by a 12-foot fence with barbed wire.
- Some Chinese immigrants died by suicide after languishing in the station. Looking at the strokes of Chinese characters carved into the wooden walls, I could only wonder how they persevered for as long as they did.
State of play: Angel Island may be a thing of the past, but the driving force behind its legacy remains very much alive today.
- Two years in, President Biden continues to face criticism from both parties about the way he has handled the surge in migration to the U.S.-Mexico border.
- Meanwhile, reports of poor hygiene and abuse in migrant detention facilities draw parallels to Angel Island.
Take a ferry to Angel Island to experience the history for yourself.
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