“One major reason to build the Immigration Station, was to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882”
“We didn’t want to come in illegally, but we were forced to because of the immigration laws. They particularly picked on the Chinese. If we told the truth, it didn’t work. So we had to take the crooked path.”-from an interview with Mr. Chan, former detainee on Angel Island
Between 1910 and 1940, over 178,000 Chinese men, women and children were admitted into the U.S. as new immigrants, returning residents, and U.S. citizens. The majority of them, approximately 100,000, were detained at the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island, making them the largest group from any country.
One major reason to build the Angel Island Immigration Station was to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 – 1943, which were first passed during a period of anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. The Exclusion Acts were the only legislation in U.S. history to exclude a particular race or ethnicity. They prevented Chinese laborers from entering the U.S., allowing only merchants, students, diplomats, and travelers. To get around this discriminatory legislation, some Chinese sought to enter as sons and daughters of those who said they were born in America, U.S. citizens by birth. These men would say they had travelled to China and fathered children there, then returned to the U.S. This practice, which created “paper sons and daughters,” was used much more often after the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the birth records at the Hall of Records in San Francisco. Many Chinese immigrants registered as U.S.-born, creating new opportunities to bring family members to the U.S. or sell “slots” to others.
In response, the U.S. government began a lengthy interrogation process for Chinese arrivals to determine if these sons and daughters were really descendants of those who claimed they were fathers. Sample questions asked included, “Who lives in the third house of the fourth row of houses in your village?” “How many steps is it to the village well?” While some immigrants passed on their first attempt, others had to go through a lengthy appeals process. Somehow over 95% of Chinese immigrants finally were allowed to enter the country, while the rest were deported. Some who were on the island for many weeks, months, or even years carved poetry into the wooden walls of the Immigration Station barracks, which still remains and may be seen by visitors.
Researchers will be able to find over 40,000 case files of Chinese immigrants at the San Bruno office of the National Archives and Records Administration. AIISF profiles many immigrants from China on its Immigrant Voices website. These stories are told in their own words, through videos, and also in stories told by their descendants and other writers. We invite you to contribute your stories as well.
Information provided by Erika Lee and Judy Yung in Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, published 2010 by the Oxford University Press.