Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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Life on Angel Island

The question soon arose of how to actually implement the Chinese Exclusion Act. Initially, customs service officers individually and arbitrarily administered Exclusion; in time, procedures became standardized and as they did, Exclusion enforcement eventually fell upon the Bureau of Immigration, forerunner of today’s Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Fast forward thirty years: by the first decade of the 20th century, a national system had formed for specifically regulating Asian immigration.  This system invoked fear and loathing in the community, remainied a baleful memory for generations.

As part of this system, Immigration officials planned a new facility on Angel Island, the largest island in the San Francisco Bay, far from the mainland. It would replace the old two-story shed at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company wharf previously used to house and process incoming and outgoing migrants. The new station would prevent Chinese immigrants from communicating with those in San Francisco, isolate immigrants with communicable diseases, and, like the prison on nearby Alcatraz Island, be escape proof. In January 1910, over the late objections of Chinese community leaders, this hastily built immigration station was opened on the northeastern edge of Angel Island, ready to receive its first guests.

The first stop on disembarking at the pier was the Administration Building. Men were separated from women and children, then proceeded for medical exams, a humiliating experience for Asians, whose medical practice does not include disrobing before the leering eyes of strangers or being probed and measured by metal calipers. Here, they would also be tested for parasitic infections. Consequences could be severe for failing this test, including hospitalization at their own expense or deportation. After the examinations they were then assigned a detention dormitory and a bunk, where they would await their interrogators, the Board of Special Inquiry.

Circumventing the Chinese Exclusion Act became a first order concern for most immigrants from China, as it allowed only merchants, clergy, diplomats, teachers, students as “exempt” classes to come here. Many Chinese immigrants resorted to buying false identities at great cost, which allowed them to immigrate as either children of exempt classes or children of natives. In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed municipal records which created an opportunity for the city’s Chinese residents to claim that they were born here and therefore were American citizens. As citizens Chinese could bring their children to this country, and on return visits to their ancestral villages, claim new children had been born to them. Some of these were “paper sons” or less frequently “paper daughters” — children on paper only without a direct family connection. These paper children were in effect “slots” which people could sell to allow new immigrants to come to this country.

For more information about paper sons, view this 2009 CNN news story by Richard Liu.

Interrogations

To counter this practice, Immigration inspectors developed grueling interrogations, and by 1910 they had refined this procedure. The immigrant applicant would be called before a Board of Special Inquiry, composed of two immigrant inspectors, a stenographer, and a translator, when needed. Over the course of several hours or even days, the applicant would be asked about minute details only a genuine applicant would know about — their family history, location of the village, their homes. These questions had been anticipated and thus, irrespective of the true nature of the relationship to their sponsor, the applicant had prepared months in advance by committing these details to memory. Their witnesses — other family members living in the United States — would be called forward to corroborate these answers. Any deviation from the testimony would prolong questioning or throw the entire case into doubt and put the applicant at risk of deportation, and possibly everyone else in the family connected to the applicant as well. These details had to be remembered for life. Because of return trips to China, the risk of random immigration raids and identity card checks on the street, a paper son often had to keep these details alive throughout their life.

In the meantime, immigrants suffered through long waits on Angel Island for these accounts to be taken or to arrive in a world before instantaneous electronic communication. This period could range from several weeks if the testimony was taken locally to several months to years if the applicant was rejected and appealed the decision. The length of stay varied for travelers from other countries; Japanese immigrants held documents provided by their government that sometimes expedited the process of entering the country, and thus, the majority of the detainees were Chinese. Often, one’s relatives might be on the other side of the country in New York or Chicago. Wherever they were, until their testimony was taken and corroborated and found its way back to San Francisco, the applicant would languish in detention.

In the end, the complaints of the community and public officials regarding the safety of the Immigration Station proved true when the Administration Building burned to the ground in August 1940. All applicants were relocated to a mainland facility by November. In 1943, Congress finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in consideration of its ally in the Pacific Theater, thus ending 61 years of official Exclusion. But there was a twist: while the repeal finally allowed Chinese to become naturalized citizens at last, it continued to limit immigration from China to a mere 105 people a year until 1965.

Once closed due to fire, the Immigration Station site was used as a World War II prisoner of war processing center by the U.S. military. After the war, the site was abandoned and deteriorated. In 1963, Angel Island was established as a state park and the California Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks) assumed stewardship of the immigration site.

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