(January 20, 2010) – The White House Office of the Press Secretary released a Presidential Proclamation declaring January 21, 2010, as National Angel Island Day.
In the proclamation President Barack Obama called upon the people of the United States to learn more about the history of Angel Island and to observe this anniversary with appropriate ceremonies and activities.
The 740 acre Angel Island is now Angel Island State Park (www.angelisland.com), which is described on its Web site as a microcosm of U.S. History spanning from the time of the Miwok Indian as a hunting ground, through the Civil War as an encampment, then a quarantine station during the Spanish-American War, a discharge depot and recruitment processing center during World War I, an embarkation station and POW camp during World War II, and a Nike Missile Base from 1955 to 1962.
Angel Island is best known as the U.S. Immigration Station often referred to as “The Ellis Island of the West” from 1910 through 1940. The East Garrison Immigration Station still stands and was granted National Landmark Status.
A fire destroyed the Angel Island Immigration Station in 1940 and the other buildings were in anger of falling into disrepair until it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
Angel Island’s Mount Livermore rises 781 feet, and was named after Caroline Livermore, a conservationist who led the campaign to create Angel Island State Park. Other historical sites of interest on the island include 11 Officers Quarters, Camp Reynolds, Ayala Cove Camp Reynolds, West Garrison Fort McDowell.
The proclamation states that it was 100 years ago, that the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay opened for the first time, opening an important chapter of the American narrative. It would be written by immigrants that walked through the station’s doors for the next three decades.
The immigrants came from the cities, villages, and farms of their birth, they journeyed across the Pacific, seeking better lives for themselves and their children. Many arrived at Angel Island, weary but hopeful, only to be unjustly confined for months or, in some cases, years. As we remember their struggle, we honor all who have been drawn to America by dreams of limitless opportunity.
“Unlike immigrants who marveled at the Statue of Liberty upon arrival at Ellis Island, those who came to Angel Island were greeted by an intake facility that was sometimes called the “Guardian of the Western Gate,” stated President Obama in the proclamation. “Racially prejudiced immigration laws of the time subjected many to rigorous exams and interrogations, as well as detention in crowded, unsanitary barracks.”
According to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation Web site, “On arrival at San Francisco, passengers would be separated by nationality. Europeans or travelers holding first or second class tickets would have their papers processed on board the ship and allowed to disembark. Asians and other immigrants, including Russians, Mexicans, and others, as well as those who needed to be quarantined for health reasons, would be ferried to Angel Island for processing.”
The site goes on to note that several state and local laws were also passed which targeting the Chinese, and won Congressional support in a compromise to secure crucial western state votes for other legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, and limited immigration on the basis of nationality or race for the first time. The legislation would survive in successive forms all the way through the Second World War.
The legacy of their plight is expressed with carvings in the small holding areas, where people carved poetry and inscriptions into the walls in their native language – from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to Russian, German, and Urdu. These etchings remain on Angel Island today as poignant reminders of the immigrant experience and an unjust time in American history.
“If there is any vindication for the Angel Island immigrants who endured so many hardships, it is the success achieved by those who were allowed entry, and the many who, at long last, gained citizenship,” Obama added. “They have contributed immeasurably to our Nation as leaders in every sector of American life. The children of Angel Island have seized the opportunities their ancestors saw from across an ocean. By demonstrating that all things are possible in America, this vibrant community has created a beacon of hope for future generations of immigrants.”
In an editorial for The Los Angeles Times, Dr. Erika Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota, an expert on the Chinese exclusion laws and Angle Island, said Angel Island is a relic to remind us of America’s contradictory approach to immigration. It has welcomed some while at the same time unfairly detains and deports other newcomers – based on race and national origin.
She states: “Built to enforce laws that specifically excluded Chinese and other Asian immigrants from the country, the Angel Island Immigration Station turned away countless newcomers and deported thousands of U.S. residents who were considered risks to the nation or had entered the country with fraudulent papers. For those who were denied entry because of race and class-biased exclusion laws, Angel Island showed America at its worst as a gate-keeping nation.”
Lee authored the award winning “At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943” (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), about how exclusion laws transformed the United States into a “gatekeeping nation.”
She will also soon publish the forthcoming book, “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America,” which stems from her research on “Asian Immigration and Exclusion in the Americas: Race, Migration, and Transnational Immigration Restriction, 1880-1940.”
Le said the centennial offers a timely lesson as the debate on immigration reform enters a new era, Lee added. With the new comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) the complex issues has made any bill an emotional battle that is enhanced by global recession and high unemployment.
With 38 million (12.6 percent) foreign-born U.S. residents, Lee said this is a time when the country should be developing an immigration policy that “treats every individual with dignity and respect,” one that enhance national security; expedites the flow of people and goods.
Rather, she said the country is repeating the dark chapter of what happened with Angel Island. She said Department of Homeland Security statistics state that approximately 32,000 people are held on immigration-related charges – most are longtime residents with no terrorist ties.
“Our broken immigration system encourages undocumented immigration, and too many immigrant families are living in the shadows of American society,” she said. “On this landmark date in our immigration history, we should remember Angel Island’s multiracial history of inclusion and exclusion and recognize that there is no more time to waste. It’s time to fix immigration and fulfill America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.”
Find out more about online at Angel Island Association (http://angelisland.org), Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (www.aiisf.org).