Between 1890 and 1924, over 20 million newcomers entered the United States, more than in any comparable period in our nation’s history. Fleeing poverty and oppression for a better, freer life, many immigrants never forgot their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. Holding aloft a welcoming torch, she symbolized America’s promise. In the words later inscribed at the statue’s base,

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Emma Lazarus’ words mythologized the immigration experience for European immigrants who entered the premier gateway of the East Coast: Ellis Island Immigration Station in New York Harbor.

On the West Coast, from 1910 to 1940, the majority of immigrants arriving in San Francisco received a much chillier reception at the remote, Angel Island Immigration Station. The majority of immigrants crossing the Pacific came from Asia, not Europe. To understand their treatment, we must understand its roots. The majority of newcomers at Angel Island were from China and Japan. Their stories are well documented. Less is known about the relative handful arrived from other countries around the world including the Punjab, Russia, the Philippines, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Latin America. Their stories remain to be gathered.

The Journey Across the Pacific
At the time, the average Pacific journey took three weeks. The trip was a cramped, below-decks experience for the majority of the passengers, who traveled in steerage class. Indeed, many had to borrow money to purchase the cheapest passage, money they hoped to repay quickly once they found work in the United States.

When a ship from Asia arrived in San Francisco Bay, immigration officers boarded it immediately, and separated the passengers by nationality and class. Europeans and travelers holding first- or second-class tickets had their papers processed aboard ship and were quickly allowed to disembark. Steerage passengers, especially those from Asia, Russia, Mexico and other less-desirable locations, as well as those who needed to be quarantined for health reasons, were ferried to Angel Island, where some were subjected to torturous and protracted processing. Some would be detained for weeks, months or years. Others would be deported without being allowed to set foot on the U.S. mainland.

At the Immigration Station 1910-1940
The Angel Island Immigration Station, which operated between 1910 and 1940, was sited on the far side of a remote, often fog-bound island in the middle of the bay. After landing at the pier, would-be immigrants were herded into the wooden Administration Building. Men were separated from women and children, then lined up for medical examinations. It was a humiliating experience for Asians, who were not accustomed to disrobing before strangers or being probed and measured by unfamiliar metal instruments.

“When we first came, we went to the administration building for the physical examination. The doctor told us to take off everything. Really though, it was humiliating. The Chinese never expose themselves like that. They checked you and checked you. We never got used to that kind of thing – and in front of whites.”

Mr. Lee, age 20 in 1930

All newcomers were tested for disease. If an infection was found, the patient could be hospitalized at his own expense or deported. One survey of medical records of Japanese passing through Angel Island revealed that many were summarily deported for minor and easily treatable ailments like diarrhea, hookworm, or trachoma, an eye disease.

The Japanese and Angel Island

“The Japanese detention quarters were next to ours—they all brought along their baggage and families. They did not need to have hearings and were free to go ashore within 24 hours. That could be because the diplomacy of a strong nation forced the lenient implementation of immigration laws.”

Mr. Ma, in 1922

Mr. Ma’s observation was accurate. Japan had gained diplomatic power and respect after military victories against China and Russia. Moreover, the Japanese government had proved ready to co-operate with U.S. efforts to limit the entry of Japanese laborers to the U.S. In exchange, most Japanese entrants were processed through Angel Island relatively quickly.

From 1891 to 1900, 27,440 Japanese, mostly laborers, entered the U.S. mainland. Anti-Japanese agitation on the West Coast prompted the Japanese government to stop issuing passports to laborers wishing to emigrate to the U.S. or Canada. Nevertheless, between 1901 to 1907, almost 38,000 Japanese managed to enter the country as students, businessmen, returning laborers, or relatives of U.S. residents. An equal number arrived via Hawaii. This practice was halted by the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, in which Japan agreed to restrict emigration still further. Japanese laborers still leave and re-enter the country, however, and they could bring over their wives, parents and children. They could even send for “picture brides.”

The picture bride system was a variation on the traditional Japanese marriage, in which a go between arranged a suitable match between a bride and groom who did not know each other. When the would-be groom was already in the U.S., photographs were exchanged. To seal the marriage, the bride’s name was entered into the groom’s family registry in Japan.

Many an enterprising bachelor worked for years, if not decades, in the U.S. to accumulate the nest egg he needed to send for a bride and start a family. At least 20,000 picture brides passed through Angel Island before Japan agreed to bar the practice in the Ladies Agreement of 1921. To Asian immigrants, marriage meant far more than companionship. American-born children provided access to land ownership and other rights that were denied to the immigrant parents.

“Paper Sons”
At Angel Island, Chinese immigrants were measured by a stricter standard than others. After passing medical exams, they faced an additional hurdle: a grueling interrogation by a Board of Special Inquiry. Chinese non-citizen laborers residing on the U.S. were not permitted to bring over their wives, parents and children as the Japanese were. Only American-born Chinese were allowed to send for their children.

Keenly feeling the injustice of discriminatory legislation, many Chinese attempted to circumvent the immigration law by falsely claiming that their parent was or an American citizen. The trade in false documents escalated after San Francisco’s Great Earthquake and Fire destroyed the city’s municipal records in 1906. Chinese residents made claims which could not be disproven that the disaster had destroyed evidence that they had been born in the U.S. Some of these claims were legitimate, but a thriving trade soon sprang up to bring over cousins or other kinsfolk as “paper sons” and “paper daughters.” Sometimes the only “relationship” involved the exchange of cash. American citizens could bring over any children they sired on subsequent trips to China. In effect, some Chinese attempted to circumvent a racist and unjust Exclusion Act by selling immigration “slots” to would-be entrants who were not really their children.

Immigrants waiting for processing at Angel Island

Immigration inspectors developed grueling interrogations to detect paper sons. Over the course of hours or even days, they would be quizzed in detail on their family history, their homes and their villages. Meanwhile, the sponsoring relative would be asked the same questions.

Presumably, only genuine families would be able to supply matching answers to questions like these:

  • What is your living room floor made of?
  • Where is the rice bin kept?
  • Where is your village’s temple?
  • How many houses are in your village lane?
  • What are the names of the neighbors who live in your village lane and what are their occupations?
  • What direction does your house in China face?
  • How many windows does your house in China have?

Both “paper” and legitimate fathers sent letters or “coaching books” to China filled with details which the prospective immigrant spent months committing to memory. Ironically, since many Chinese living in America had not seen their home villages for years, it was easy for a legitimate relationship to trip up over a question like, “What type of bedding did your father sleep in?

Any discrepancies prolonged the questioning or threw the entire case into doubt, putting the applicant and his family at risk of deportation. The applicant had the right to appeal, however and only 2% of those who appealed their cases were actually deported. Nevertheless, some were incarcerated at Angel Island for as long as two years while their appeals dragged on.

Happily, most applicants were able to pass the interrogation, and 90% of incoming Chinese landed successfully. The average stay at the immigration station was two weeks. Nevertheless, the anxieties of the ordeal were seared in the memory, and the details of the interrogation had to be remembered for life. Not only were Chinese residents at risk of
immigration raids and random identity card checks, when they were interrogated every time they tried to re-enter the U.S. after a trip to China.

“I was interrogated for three days. The questions they asked me were baffling, after a day or two of questioning, it was not surprising that people would give a wrong answer here and there. I made the big mistake of saying I was married. At that time, if someone coming as a merchant’s son was married in China, he could not enter. My wife and I were separated for 17 years. She came as a G.I. Wife only after I served during World War II.”

Mr. Tong, age 20 in 1932

Unfit for Habitation?
At first glance, visitors saw a tranquil hillside setting, palm trees, and neatly painted structures which included an administration building, a barracks, a hospital, utility structures and a pier. A closer look revealed locked gates, a guard tower, and fences topped by barbed wire enclosing the station’s perimeter.

By 1911, when the Immigration Station had been open for less than a year, local Chinese leaders were demanding that living conditions be investigated. At any one time, the barracks held 250 to 350 people, segregated by nationality and gender, and often packed into rooms crammed with wire bunks stacked three high. The inmates were not allowed outdoors except for short exercise periods in small, fenced-in yards.

“I had nothing to do there. During the day, we stared at the scenery beyond the barbed wire – the sea and the sky and clouds that were separated from us. Besides listening to the birds outside the fence, we could listen to records and talk to the old-timers in the barracks. Some, due to faulty responses during the interrogation and lengthy appeal procedures, had been there for years.”

Mr. Lowe, Age 16 in 1939

Food became a constant source of complaint.

“Everything was thrown into a big bowl that resembled a washtub. They just steamed the food ’til it was like a soupy stew. After looking at it, you’d lose your appetite. There was cabbage, stewed vegetables, bits of stewed meat of low quality.”

Mrs Jew

Chinese inmates rioted in 1919 to protest the food, and Chinese cooks were hired. Nevertheless, conditions remained grim. Some demanded to be returned to China on the next boat, and rumors of suicide abounded.

A succession of public health officials found inadequate sanitation and fireproofing, and poor conditions in the dormitories and the hospital. There was insufficient water on the island; a supply had to be barged in. By 1922, both the Assistant Secretary of Labor and the Commissioner General of the Immigration Department had declared the facility filthy and unfit for human habitation, a firetrap that was too expensive to operate. Nevertheless, the facility continued to operate for almost twenty more years.

Station personnel included immigration inspectors, interpreters, administrative and medical personnel, maintenance men and kitchen workers. Although some staff quarters existed, most workers commuted daily to the island on the government ferry.


There are tens of thousands of poems
 composed on these walls.
They are all cries of complaint and sadness.
The day I am rid of this prison and attain success,
I must remember that this chapter once existed.
In my daily needs, I must be frugal.
Needless extravagance leads youth to ruin.
All my compatriots should please be mindful.
Once you have some real gains, return home early

-By one from Xiangshan, Poem 31 from Island, p. 66.

The most visible and enduring testament of the Angel Island experience are the poems, some written with pencil or brush, others carved using a classical Chinese technique, deep into the wooden walls of the barracks. Long dismissed as mere graffiti, these poems are a vital historic record of the aspirations of the immigrants, and of their anger and sadness at the injustice of their initial reception in America.

The young children do not yet know worry.
Arriving at the Golden Mountain,
they were imprisoned in the wooden building.
Not understanding the sad and miserable situation before their eyes,
They must play all day like calves. 

- Poem 56 from Island, p. 106.

The Closing of the Immigration Station
In the end, community and public concerns regarding the safety of the Immigration Station proved true when the Administration Building burned to the ground on August 12, 1940. The 223 detainees were relocated to a facility in San Francisco in early 1941. During World War II, the Immigration Station’s detention barracks were used by the Army as a World War II prisoner-of-war processing center for German and Japanese soldiers and returning nationals. After the war, the island was turned over to the State of California. The island’s abandoned buildings quietly 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.

Information and photos obtained from the Angel Island Immigration Foundation. For more information on Angel Island, please visit the foundation page website at