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Elaine Elinson reviews Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, by Erika Lee and Judy Yung

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Blog editor’s note: Elaine Elinson has forwarded the CSA blog the following review of a new book about immigration through Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. The blog is open to submissions of reviews of other relevant books.


Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, By Erika Lee and Judy Yung

Reviewed by Elaine Elinson


In the last month of summer, I arrived in America on ship.

After crossing the ocean, the ship docked and I waited to go on shore.

Because of the records, the innocent was imprisoned in a wooden building.

Reflecting on the event, my heart is vexed and depressed.

I composed a poem to rid myself of sadness and worry…

Sitting here, uselessly delayed for long years and months, I am like a pigeon in a cage.


This anonymous poem found carved into the walls of the men’s detention barracks at Angel Island, captures the anguish faced by many of those who passed through the West Coast’s most famous immigration station.

From 1910 until it was closed in 1940, half a million people stopped first on Angel Island before being allowed onto the shore at San Francisco.  Another half million caught their last glimpse of the United States from the island off the coast of San Francisco as they were deported.

Thanks to the work of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, the site is now a National Historic Landmark. The Chinese poems first recovered by U.S. Park Ranger Alexander Weiss in 1970 just before the building was to be destroyed, give a glimpse into the experiences of the 100,000 Chinese who were detained there, the largest immigrant group to pass through Angel Island.

But a new book by Erika Lee and Judy Yung.  Angel Island:  Immigrant Gateway to America, (Oxford University Press) for the first time uncovers the history of the wide range of immigrants who landed there from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.  Aging photographs show Japanese women in kimonos, an African woman wrapped in patterned cloth holding her two children, a Turkish mother and son, and Sikh men in suits and turbans.

In addition to the treasure trove of 187 Chinese poems, now carefully preserved and translated, the authors examined another 156 inscriptions in Japanese, Korean Russian, Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, German and English.

Exclusion not admission

Though it is often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Lee and Yung point out that the Angel Island Immigration Station was designed “with exclusion, not admission” in mind.  No Statue of Liberty greeted the hopeful immigrants fleeing from hunger, war and political chaos in their home countries.  There was no plea for the “huddled masses” to enter the lamp-lit “golden door.”   Instead they faced harsh interrogation – sometimes lasting for weeks — grueling medical inspections, and bleak quarters, segregated by race and gender, all designed to prevent the newcomers from entering the country. If they did succeed in gaining entry, the law barred citizenship for those of Asian ancestry.

Lee and Yung argue that the immigration station itself was mainly built to enforce the Chinese exclusion laws of the late 1800s, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Previously there had been an “open door” immigration policy, but as more and more restrictive laws were enacted, the growing number of new arrivals could not be contained at the rickety wharf side detention shed or in steerage quarters on steamships docked in San Francisco Bay.  The crowded, inhumane conditions put political pressure on the government to build a new immigration station for persons arriving from Asia.

On opening day, January 21, 1910, the authors describe how 101 Chinese detainees and “one gloomy Hindu” were brought from the detention shed to the island barracks. More than 400 others were transferred from steamships in the harbor. These were the first of the estimated one million people who were kept there over the next three decades.

Their personal stories are the heart of the book.  Though the authors have a commanding knowledge of immigration law and the U.S. national interests and changing international politics that shaped it, the most fascinating aspect of this book is the richly detailed examination of the lives of those who came from all corners of the earth to this island.

The stories of Angel Island powerfully illustrate how race, class and gender have all shaped U.S. immigration policy.  The authors conclude that Angel Island “directly helped to maintain two Americas:  one that allowed immigrants to make better lives for themselves and become Americans, and another that treated immigrants as unwanted foreigners who were to be denied entry and removed.”

Though a 1940 fire destroyed most of the administrative records, the authors combed through government archives, INS records, personal diaries and letters and conducted scores of oral history interviews with those who passed through Angel Island and their descendants, unearthing detailed, often poignant stories.

The Chinese came in the largest numbers, but through the decades they were joined by 85,000 Japanese, 8,000 South Asians, 8,000 Russians and Jews, 1,000 Koreans, and 1,000 Filipinos and others.  There are even records of 400 Mexicans who decided it was safer to come by sea rather than overland during the stormy period of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath.

Indian revolutionaries

Through their tenacious research, the authors have uncovered some surprising history.  For example, immigrants from South Asia came through Angel Island just as the nascent independence movement against the British in India was gaining strength.  Many became involved in the Gadar (Rebellion) Party, fighting against British imperialism at home, while challenging discriminatory laws in the U.S. Immigration officials collected surveillance on the Indian arrivals and shared it with the British.  When Gadar members returned to India to join the popular revolt after World War I broke out, many were arrested by the British raj.  Singh Sarabha, a Gadar activist who had passed through Angel Island on his way to study at Berkeley, was sentenced to death and executed.

Filipino immigrants faced perhaps most unusual and unjust situation of all. When the Philippines was under U.S. rule, Filipinos were generally admitted to the United States as “U.S. nationals.”  But after the path to Philippine independence was set in 1934, with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act (which Philippine nationalists termed the Philippine Commonwealth and Independence Law) their status abruptly changed to “aliens.”

The new law offered independence for the Philippines after a ten-year waiting period, but also subjected Filipino immigrants to the quota system for the first time. Reclassified as aliens, Filipinos became subject to the same restrictions as other Asian immigrants – they could not own land or become naturalized citizens.

This was particularly cruel for hundreds of Filipino passengers who arrived in San Francisco just days after the law was passed.  They had left their homeland before the law was signed and therefore had no valid visas.  Lacking proper documentation, they were denied admission.

Repatriation “trick”

The following year, Congress passed the Repatriation Act, which Angel Island Commissioner Edward Cahill called a “Big Brotherly gesture of help and assistance to the Filipinos who have come the US and now find themselves in difficulties.”  It offered government assistance for Filipinos to return to their homeland – but it also barred them from ever reentering the United States.

Calling it a “massive deportation campaign in disguise,” the authors cite muckraking journalist Carey McWilliams ‘ description that “repatriation is a “trick and not a very clever trick to get Filipinos out of this country.”  Though officials hoped that half the total Filipino immigrant population would “voluntarily” leave the U.S., in the end only 2,000 Filipinos (out of 108,000) took them up on the offer.

Lee and Yung have amplified the voices of those who carved messages in the walls of the Angel Island detention barracks, whether classical Chinese poems or barely legible words in Korean or Punjabi. In doing so, they have allowed them to tell the stories that were long missing in U.S. immigration history.


Elaine Elinson is a member of the CSA Steering Committee and coauthor of the award-winning Wherever There’s a Fight:  How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California. An earlier version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.


One thought on “Elaine Elinson reviews Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, by Erika Lee and Judy Yung

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