The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the first ethnic restriction on immigration to the United States, prohibited the entry of Chinese laborers to the United States. Its provisions did not touch the 150,000 laborers already in the country before the measure took effect, and who could legally come and go. Those who had earned citizenship were allowed to travel to China to marry or to spend time with their wives, who, as aliens, were ineligible for entry to the United States. On the other hand, their children were eligible for entry. The “paper sons” who entered the United States with returning Chinese Americans often were not sons at all, but the children of neighbors or of friends in China seeking opportunities in the United States. Chinese officials, merchants, tourists, and students also were allowed to travel freely. Until 1924, merchants were allowed to bring partners and wives. Many of the “partners” in fact had no legitimate role in the businesses they claimed to be associated with, using the lax enforcement of the law as a loophole for getting ineligible Chinese into the country. Although all aspects of exemption to the exclusion were brought before the courts, it was consistently determined that in the absence of credible evidence that a professed merchant was not who he claimed, he was allowed to enter under the provisions of the Sino-American (Angell) Treaty of 1881. As a result, thousands of Chinese entered the country fraudulently as sons or partners of Chinese Americans already in the country. Although most of the methods of gaining illegal entry were well known, fraud was difficult to prove. In the absence of regular immigration officials—the government had no official immigration bureaucracy before 1892—most screening fell to the understaffed customs officials who were aware of the fraudulent methods used to skirt the Chinese Exclusion Act and thus came to presume that the Chinese were inveterate liars and likely criminals. With the destruction of most immigration records during the earthquake and resulting fires in San Francisco in 1906, evading detection became even easier.
With increasing government regulations, it became impossible to effectively screen immigrants in the two-story shed at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company wharf in San Francisco. The Bureau of Immigration (see Immigration and Naturalization Service) followed the example of New York City’s founding of an immigrant station on Ellis Island, separated from the city itself. Established in 1910, the Angel Island detention center on San Francisco’s old quarantine island included barracks, a hospital, and various administrative buildings. Here, immigrants could be isolated, both to protect the population from communicable diseases and to provide time for examination of possible fraudulent entry claims.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, Europeans and first- and second-class travelers were usually processed on board and allowed to disembark directly to the city. All others were ferried to Angel Island where the men and women were separated before undergoing stringent medical tests, performed with little regard for the dignity of the immigrant, looking particularly for parasitic infections. Afterward, prospective immigrants were housed in crowded barracks, sleeping in three-high bunk beds, awaiting interrogation. The grueling interviews, held before the Board of Special Inquiry, which included two immigrant inspectors, a stenographer, and a translator, covered every detail of the background and lives of proposed entrants. Any deviation from details offered by family members resulted in rejection and deportation. And if a successful entrant ever left the country, the transcript of his or her interrogation was on record for use when he or she returned. The whole process could take weeks, as family members on the mainland had to be contacted for corroborating evidence. In the case of deportation proceedings and their appeals, an immigrant might spend months or more than a year on Angel Island. Although this process applied to all steerage-class passengers, most had fewer obstacles to surmount than the Chinese did. The Japanese, for instance, as a result of the Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907), often had documents prepared by the Japanese government that shortened the process.
While incarcerated for weeks or months in crowded, filthy conditions and eating wretched food, many Chinese immigrants despaired and longed for their homeland. Their relatives and community officials began to complain of safety and health concerns. One of hundreds of poems, either written on or carved into the wall of the buildings, expressed the helpless feeling of the unknown author’s situation:
Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,
My freedom is withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?
I look to see who is happy but they only sit quietly.
I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep.
The Days are long and bottle constantly empty;
My sad mood even so is not dispelled.
Nights are long and the pillow cold; who can pity my loneliness?
After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow,
Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?*
It was a fire, however, rather than government action, that finally shut down the Angel Island facility. The administration building burned to the ground in April 1940, and by the end of the year, all detainees had been moved to the mainland. Three years later in the midst of World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, thus allowing Chinese immigrants to become naturalized citizens.
The old site of the detention center was briefly used as a prisoner-of-war processing center during World War II, before falling into decay. In 1963, it was incorporated into the Angel Island State Park, and 13 years later, the California state legislature appropriated $250,000 to restore the barracks, which were opened to the public as a museum in 1983. Also in that year, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation was created to partner with the California State Parks and the National Park Service to continue programs of restoration and education. In 1997, the site was declared a National Historic Landmark.
*From Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, eds. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940 (Seattle: University of Washington, 1991), p. 68.