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Two tiny, adjacent islands in New York harbor, Ellis Island and Liberty Island, are home to the twin icons of American immigration. Although the Statue of Liberty, erected on what was then called Bedloe's Island in 1886, was intended by its French donors to be a monument to republican liberty, its imposing presence in the harbor and Emma Lazarus's poem added to its American-designed pedestal, quickly transformed it.(1) The creation, in 1892, of the immigrant reception center on nearby Ellis Island, merely underlined the statue's association with immigrants.(2) The refurbishment of the Statue for its centennial and the creation of a magnificent museum of immigration on Ellis have made the association inescapable, even at a time of increasing nativism.(3) There is, however, another island, which is an immigration icon of a different sort. If the statue - "The Lady" as many call her - and Ellis Island are primarily icons of welcome, of acceptance, that other island, three thousand miles to the west, is an icon of suspicion, of rejection.
Angel Island, whose 740 acres make it the largest island in San Francisco Bay, was associated with immigration for only thirty years, 19101940. During those years it was the site of the Angel Island Immigration Station, which was primarily a detention facility for Asian immigrants, mostly Chinese men and Japanese women. Before 1910 it had a long and varied history. Miwok Indian sites on the island have been dated as going back at least 3,000 years. The first written record is from 1775, when Manuel de Ayala, a lieutenant in the Spanish Navy, used the island as a base for his survey of San Francisco Bay. It was he who named the place: Isla de Los Angeles - Angel Island. As the island was the easiest anchorage after the difficult passage of the Golden Gate, all sorts of people used it in the Spanish-Mexican period: Russian sealers stored furs there, whalers of several nationalities stocked up on fresh water and firewood, and smugglers used it to avoid Spanish, Mexican, and later, American customs officials. For a short time there was a cattle ranch on the island, and it has had three different lighthouses.
For a century - 863 to 1962 - the island was used by the American military. An Army post, eventually named Fort McDowell, was established there during the Civil War. During World War I and World War II civilian internees were held on it, as were prisoners of war during Word War II, and, in its final military use, there was a Nike Missile Base on the island between 1954 and 1962. When the missile base was dismantled the entire island became the state park that exists today.
But it is the Immigration Station that is of concern here. The need for an immigration facility in San Francisco - and for a national immigration bureaucracy - was a direct result of anti-Chinese legislation, the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.(4) These were the first effective pieces of American restrictive immigration legislation; the latter was the hinge on which the legal history of immigration turned. With the passage of the exclusion act, the immigration of Chinese laborers was outlawed for ten years; this was renewed for another ten years in 1892, and the law was made "permanent" early in Theodore Roosevelt's administration. Beginning in the 1870s Chinese immigrants in difficulty with the immigration regulations were held in a ramshackle wooden two-story warehouse leased from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and located at the end of a wharf on the San Francisco waterfront. It was commonly called "the shed." The building, about 100 feet square, held up to 200 people at a time, with men on the first floor and women on the second. Dorene Askin, a historian for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, described it as "crowded and unsanitary," while a contemporary inspector for the Department of Commerce and Labor reported that it was a "death trap."(5)
Just after the turn of the century, immigration officials in San Francisco were in the process of arranging for new quarters on or near the waterfront when officials in Washington, D.C., opted instead for a purpose-built facility on Angel Island. In 1904 Congress instructed the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, Victor H. Metcalf, to investigate and report on a plan for an immigration station there. At the end of the year, Metcalf presented a plan (and cost estimates of $250,000) drawn up by an Oakland architect, Walter J. Mathews.(6) By 1910 the facility was opened. It was located on the island's north shore at China Cove and consisted of a number of wooden buildings - the detention barracks, administration building, hospital, and powerhouse - and a wharf. Soon after twelve cottages, a laundry, a stable, a carpenter shop, and water tanks were added and the station acquired a ferry boat. The architect supposedly used Ellis Island as a model, so that the analogy between Ellis Island and Angel Island existed even before the immigration station was built. It is not clear what, if anything, the architect learned by visiting Ellis: he chose to build in wood and Ellis Island was largely brick. The location was pleasant and scenic, although quite damp. The ferry trip from San Francisco took forty-five minutes.
In the very year that the station opened local immigration officials began to complain about the inadequacy of the facility. The buildings were, the man in charge of the San Francisco immigration district wrote on 19 December 1910, dangerous firetraps, unsanitary, and vermin infested. In addition, the lack of an adequate janitorial staff kept the place "wretchedly filthy." The hospital "was and is an outrage on civilization."(7) These complaints were buttressed by a report from the Public Health Service Surgeon, who also noted the contaminated water supply and fly and cockroach infested kitchen facilities. He calculated the gross overcrowding: one dormitory room with enough air space for ten persons was equipped with fifty-four bunks, all of which were sometimes used.(8) Five years later Commissioner-General of Immigration Anthony Caminetti made similar complaints and formally recommended "the removal of the station . . . to fireproof, sanitary buildings situated on the mainland upon property already owned by the United States."(9) Despite these and subsequent protests nothing was done about either moving the facility or improving it significantly until a disastrous but happily nonfatal fire destroyed the administration building and many of the records on 12 August 1940. On 5 November 1940 the last Angel Island detainees - 125 Chinese men and 19 …