Angel Island's Dark History

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Last weekend I brought 15 college students on a field trip to Angel Island, as part of a class on the history of San Francisco. Angel Island is sometimes known as the Ellis Island of the West, but the comparison is misleading. Ellis Island symbolizes the welcoming of immigrants; Angel Island stands for hostility.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, barred most immigrants from China from entering the United States. Americans at the time saw the Chinese as a threat to their jobs and safety. The exclusion act, which was not repealed until the Second World War, targeted all the people of a nation based not on their merits as individuals, but on racial stereotypes.

Federal officials at Angel Island investigated some 175,000 Chinese arrivals to determine whether they met one of the narrow criteria for admission. In the island's prison-like conditions, detainees endured family separation, racial segregation, and humiliating medical inspections. Angel Island immigrants were often held for weeks or more while their cases were investigated. Many carved poignant Chinese poems into the walls of the barracks where they were held, expressing their frustration and anxiety.

The afternoon before our trip, President Trump signed his executive order on immigration. This order revives the logic of Chinese Exclusion; out of fear and prejudice, it bars entry by entire groups, regardless of individual character.

After our tour, I asked my students what our leaders can learn from immigration history. One student recalled a translated line from a poem on the walls: "America has power, but not justice."


Another anonymous poet wrote, "The day I am rid of this prison and attain success, I must remember that this chapter once existed."

We, too, must remember.

With a Perspective, I'm Michael Kahan.

Michael Kahan teaches urban studies and history at Stanford. He lives in Mountain View.