Angel Island

Guarding the Golden Gate: The Beginnings of Angel Island

The official immigration station on Angel Island was not created until 1910, but immigration through the island officially began before then. 1882 was the first time where immigration inspection procedures were officially introduced to the island due to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act through Camp Reynold Army base [1]. In 1898, the Pacific Mail Steamship company (PMSS) created a “detention shed”  which had unsanitary and cramped conditions where many immigrants began to get sick [2]. Due to the poor conditions, Chinese immigrant groups began to petition the United States government to get a better facility created which lead to Congress appropriating money to create the Angel Island Immigration Station.

In 1904, Congress appropriated $250,000 to construct the station and hired architect Walter J. Matthews to design the new station [3]. The goal of creating the station was to make it the “Ellis Island of the west.” Instead of creating that, Matthews would end up creating essentially a prison with horrible conditions. In 1909, government inspectors found that the “cottage system” style facilities had issues with construction, no fire protection, and problems with having consistent fresh water on the island so Matthews was let go in July of 1909 and the construction on the Station was stopped[4]. Taft visited the station in October of 1909 and expressed that he wanted the station up and running as soon as possible [5]. With the rush to open the station on January 1, 1910, the station continued to have poor construction and a myriad of other issues.  San Francisco Commissioner of Immigration Hart Hyatt North was quoted saying:

“No one who has not been here since October… can have any conception of the difficulties under which I habe struggled in carrying out the regular work, and in equipping and occupying this station. The responsibility of the Work we have been doing since October has been so great that I have never been able to get rid of my work even on leaving the office and going home.”[6]

The station was then opened to the public on January 21, 1910. On January 22, 1910, the San Fransisco Chronicle reported that 101 Chinese immigrants and “one lone and gloomy Hindu” were transferred from the immigration shed to Angel Island [7].

Throughout the time that Angel Island was an active immigration station, 75% of people passed interrogation at Angel Island and if a person would be denied an appeal or habeas corpus case could be made so only 5% of people who were denied entry into the United States were really deported. [8] While the goal of the station was to be the “Ellis Island of the West,” instead of being a port of entry it was a port of detention. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the goal of the inspectors was to detain or deport Chinese immigrants so most people found themselves being held in the station for long periods of time [9].

[1] Ericka Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2010). 10.

[2] Lee and Yung. 10-11.

[3] Lee and Yung.  12.

[4] Lee and Yung. 13.

[5] Lee and Yung. 13.

[6] Lee and Yung. 13.

[7] “Doubtful Aliens on Angel Island.” San Fransisco Call, January 23, 1910. ANGEL ISLAND island&proxdistance=5&date2=02/01/1910&ortext=&proxtext=&phrasetext=Angel Island&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&page=1.

[8] Lee and Yung. 47.

[9] Lai, H. Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.


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