implied by the famous poem
that is nearly synonymous with
… Give me your tired,
Your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse
of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tost to me ...
For many Asian travel-
Families were separated — men in one section,
ers entering through Angel
Island, “processing” was a
frightening ordeal. A high
barbed-wire fence sur-
rounded the Immigration
Station, and gun towers guarded its perimeter.
women and children in another. At one time the
Asian men’s barracks, designed to accommodate
56 people, housed more than 200.
Inside the barracks, narrow metal bunks were
stacked three high, with suitcases stashed into
corners and laundry hanging at all angles. The newcomers were required to strip, en masse, for physical
exams and had to use the restrooms in groups and on
a schedule. Many were denied mattresses to sleep on.
The average length of stay on Angel Island was
three-and-a-half weeks, but some immigrants were
detained for nearly two years as they waited for
their entry papers to be approved. ( The average processing time for the 12 million people who entered
the U. S. through Ellis Island, by way of comparison,
was just three-and-a-half hours.)
On the immigration station’s website, Lina Fong
recounts the story of her mother’s 17-day stay at
Angel Island: “Many people committed suicide in
the restroom. She was scared to go. Every day there
was someone crying. She felt like those were the
worst times of her life.”
In part, the difficult circumstances were an
understandable, if very unfortunate, result of over-
crowding. But the Angel Island facility also enforced
policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As the
name indicates, the policy was designed to exclude,
rather than embrace, immigrants from China;
Americans were afraid Chinese laborers would
take their jobs. The result was that the Angel Island
Immigration Station — also called “The Guardian
of the Western Gate” — became a holding station for
Chinese immigrants hoping to enter the country.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law preventing a specific ethnic group from immigrating to
the United States. It was followed by laws intended
to limit the immigration of Japanese, Indian and
Filipino people and was later strengthened by the
Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted a quota
system restricting immigration of Russians, Greeks,
Italians, Spanish, Eastern Europeans, Africans,
Arabs and East Asians in an attempt “to preserve
the ideal of American homogeneity.” We still use the
quota system today.
It was a quirk of fate — and poetry — that led to
the preservation of the Angel Island Immigration
Station (the station was awarded National Historic
Landmark status in 1997). Closed after a fire in 1940
and slated for demolition in 1970, the detention bar-
racks were preserved because of the discovery of
Chinese poetry carved into their splintered wooden
walls. Here’s one such poem:
Why should anyone complain
If he is imprisoned here?
From ancient times, heroes often were
The first ones to face adversity.
Joe points out a few of the more than 200 poems
and poetry fragments that have been painstakingly
restored. He reads some aloud in Chinese, remarking on the attention to rhythm and classical form,
the nuanced historical references, and the calligraphers’ skill and artistry.
The poetry here helps to preserve a record of
immigration history, but the museum serves an
even more important purpose: it reminds us of our
national struggle to accept immigrants and embrace
ethnic diversity. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt,
who signed the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act,
said, “We are a nation of many nationalities, many
races, many religions, bound together by a single
unity, the unity of freedom and equality. Whoever
seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks
to degrade all nationalities. Whoever seeks to set
one race against another seeks to enslave all races.
Whoever seeks to set one religion against another,
In Marin / FYI
seeks to destroy all religion.”
Whether you’re seeking to understand more about
the immigrant experience, provide a civics lesson for
the kids, or learn a little history on a day trip to Angel
Island, the Immigration Station is worth a visit. Be
sure to say hello to Joe if you see him. m
Chan shows visitors a three-dimensional model of the Angel
Island Immigration Station site.
If You Go
Ferries to Angel Island run from
Tiburon (Angel Island Ferry), San
Francisco (Blue & Gold Fleet), and
Oakland/Alameda (Blue & Gold
Fleet). The Immigration Station is
open Wednesday through Sunday,
from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; admission
is $5 for adults and $3 for youth.
The station is a 1.5-mile walk from
the ferry landing at Ayala Cove.
Find more information and ferry
schedules at parks.ca.gov.