Nestled among Angel Island’s numerous bike paths, hiking trails and breathtaking views is a unique piece of American history: The United States Immigration Station. Of course, not all pieces of antiquity are happy ones and this one offers a unique and poignant insight into one of the dark blemishes on our past.
In the Spring of 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively provided a ten year moratorium on Asian labor immigration. This act placed new requirements on new Chinese migrants as well as those already living in the country, forcing them to obtain certifications for entry (and, by extension, re-entry every time they left). Moreover, the government also refused to grant State and Federal courts the right to grant citizenship to Chinese residents, despite these same courts being allowed to deport them. When the Chinese Exclusion Act was extended in 1892, it became known as the “Geary Act”, which regulated postwar Chinese immigration until the 1920s.
Surrounded by controversy, construction began on the detention facility in 1905 in an area known as China Cove. Opened in 1910 and used through the Great Depression, the USIS served as the gateway to America for migrants of 84 different countries. This “Ellis Island of the West” was different from its New York counterpart in that the majority of people who came through were from Asia; More specifically, China, Japan, Russia and south Asia (in that order).
Processing over 55,000 Chinese people alone, it became plainly obvious that the “Guardian of the Western Gate” was built specifically to blockade aliens from entering the United States. Migrants were held for months at a time, subjected to numerous interrogations meant to assess the validity of their immigration applications. Often times, interpreters at the site were not able to adequately speak the particular dialect of the detainee in question, making it difficult to pass the entry examination. Those who did pass would produce elaborate instruction manuals that coached other detainees on how to beat the inquests; anyone caught with these would have most likely been deported straight away.
Today, the USIS is a National Historic Landmark, serving as a house museum dedicated to interpreting and making connections between the experiences of those who made the journey to America over 100 years ago and the continuing story of immigration in America today. Be sure to take special note of the poetry left behind. With very little to do on the isolated island, some captives passed their time by carving their thoughts into the wood and brushing it on the walls. Many were painted over, but a few are still visible.
There are several ways to the USIS: Shuttle service is available for a fee, but there are also some great hikes and trails if you’re someone who’d prefer the more scenic route. You can find out more about the Immigration Station Museum here. For anyone wishing to learn more about our ongoing preservation efforts, please visit the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website.