To visit Angel Island is to ache for America: Views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay are achingly beautiful. Yet the history of this place is all heartache.
Witness the way this California state park captures the ache of immigrants displaced, left in limbo, and sometimes deported from here: ”Exclusion. Anger. Loneliness.”
They were examined for physical flaws — people with disabilities were routinely returned to their home countries — and interrogated incessantly about their lives. This was done to assess self-sufficiency (can this person earn an income in America?) and true immigration status (is this child really related to these parents? is this a sham marriage?).
By comparison, European able-bodied immigrants were checked on the ships on which they arrived, and weren’t detained. (Those with disabilities and any hint of disease were returned home.)
The U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island — known as “the Guardian of the West Gate” — processed almost a million newcomers from more than 80 nations. Mostly Chinese were housed on Angel Island, cruelly exposed to some of the best scenery on the continent, while deprived of the liberty they sought in America.
Many languished for months here, only winning entrance to the U.S. on appeal.
The most distraught carved poems into the walls of their “prisons”, and some of those Chinese characters remain today.
Some of the detainees’ emotions are carved in stone memorials, next to the walkway leading to the largest barracks.
Only one year after its 1910 opening, the immigration station was blasted as “appalling” by the top federal immigration official in San Francisco. He complained of “wretchedly filthy ” conditions, inadequate sanitation, poor heating and more.
Children were confined too, their parents separated by gender. Men and women weren’t allowed to communicate with each other after arrival.
Food was substandard — sparking at least one recorded “food riot” — and exercise for the detainees was confined to a tiny yard still evident on the island.
Iron-frame bunks, with sample suitcases and personal effects, are displayed at the Immigration Station. Family photos were especially prized by people so far from home, as well as being kept apart from friends and relatives waiting in San Francisco.
About one million immigrants were processed at this station, yet most of the estimated 175,000 Chinese were detained — some for years.
These people, fleeing persecution and hardship in their home countries, were joined during WWI years by “enemy aliens”, especially German visitors caught in the U.S. when war was declared and couldn’t return home.
This included all German sailors on Pacific ships, detained at the Los Angeles port, for instance, and shipped to Angel Island to be imprisoned.
These men were kept separate from the immigrant families, as were some notorious criminals sent here for maximum-security imprisonment.
They were swiftly transferred after immigration officials’ complaints — and several escape attempts.
Conditions worsened for the immigrants, to the point that officials recommended they all be shipped to Alcatraz instead.
The Angel Island station was described by government inspectors as a “firetrap” for so long, that a fire in 1940 finally closed the place. No one was injured, but lack of water on the island ensured the largest building, for administration, was destroyed.
Detainees were moved to a quarantine station in San Francisco.
By the outbreak of WWII in 1942, a prisoner-of-war processing station was opened at this site, holding Japanese and German prisoners.
California named Angel Island — the largest natural island in San Francisco Bay — a state park in 1962. The carved poems weren’t discovered until 1970, by a parks ranger, and were later published in print and online.
The Angel Island Immigration Station was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
“Save America’s Treasures”, a project of the National Trust and the White House Millennium Council, made this a restoration project in 1999, to preserve the Chinese poetry carved by lonely and sometimes, angry, immigrants, into its walls.
California taxpayers agreed, and voted in 2000 for a $15-million bond to restore the Angel Island Immigration Station. Restoration continues.
Today, it’s one of the most peaceful places in the bay, perfumed by eucalyptus trees. Angel Island has a remarkable history, including a Nike missile site.
Look for: Miwoks to Missiles, by John Soennichsen.