Angel Island Immigration Station was the entryway to America for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly from Asian countries, during its operation from 1910 to 1940. Chinese immigration to the United States had increased steadily since the mid-nineteenth century, and some Americans worried that Chinese employment as low-wage workers threatened American jobs. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to reduce the number of Chinese immigrants entering the country and make immigration more difficult. Federal officials initially processed immigrants in San Francisco upon arrival but relocated the screening center to Angel Island, a strategically-ideal location north of the city in the San Francisco Bay. There, detainees had limited contact with other immigrants who might coach them on passing their interrogations, less risk of spreading infectious diseases, and fewer chances of escaping.
Although Angel Island is often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the process for entering the United States was very different for Asian immigrants on the West Coast compared to the experiences of European immigrants in the East. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act’s rules about who was allowed to enter the country, immigration was a frustrating, expensive, and lengthy process for Asian, and specifically Chinese, immigrants. While a European immigrant might expect to spend a few hours at Ellis Island (or at any station on the West Coast), Asian immigrants spent weeks or months detained on Angel Island.
The exact number of immigrants who passed through Angel Island is unknown; estimates vary between 300,000 and one million people. While Angel Island was most consistently processing Chinese and Japanese immigrants, immigrants also arrived from India, Korea, the Philippines, Russia, Mexico, and seventy-five other countries. In the 1970s, thirty years after the immigration station closed, Asian American communities and the State of California began working to preserve both the physical station and the stories it represented. Today, the immigration station is open to the public and reminds visitors of the bravery, despair, anger, and hope of the people who dreamed of coming to America.