Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, millions of people — in numbers which have not been seen since — came to America in pursuit of a better, freer life. On the east coast, most of the huddled masses were met by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. On the west coast, between 1910 and 1940, most were met by the wooden buildings of Angel Island. These immigrants were Australians and New Zealanders, Canadians, Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Russians, and in particular, Asians. There, during this period of the great migrations, they would meet with a reception quite unlike that given to European immigrants on the East Coast. The reasons for this reception, and the story of this journey, as usual, have their roots in the past.
Around the middle of the 19th century, on the far western frontier of the continental United States, immigrants from Guangdong Province in southern China began arriving, fleeing from a land stricken by both natural and man-made disasters and a collapsing rural economy. Though initially welcomed, when the local economy took a downturn in the 1870s, economic problems were laid at the feet of this highly visible minority by organized labor, newspapers, and in short order, politicians.
Immigrants undertook a Pacific Ocean journey of three weeks, including stops in Honolulu, Manila, Yokohama, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Many passengers could barely afford steerage class travel, and bought their tickets only with the collective help of relatives and neighbors. These new immigrants believed that they could make that money back quickly in America. Other immigrants came from the Punjab, Russia, the Philippines, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Latin America as well. Their stories likewise, are not well documented and remain waiting to be uncovered.
On arrival at San Francisco, passengers would be separated by nationality. Europeans or travelers holding first or second class tickets would have their papers processed on board the ship and allowed to disembark. Asians and other immigrants, including Russians, Mexicans, and others, as well as those who needed to be quarantined for health reasons, would be ferried to Angel Island for processing.
A number of laws were passed at the local and state levels targeting the Chinese, soon attracting national attention. In order to secure the crucial western states’ votes, both parties in Congress supported the first of several acts targeting immigration from Asia. With the passing of this first act, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America had limited immigration on the basis of nationality or race for the first time, and it would not be the last, as subsequent acts severely curtailed each successive wave of immigration from Asia which came to replace Chinese immigrant workers.