From 1910 to 1940, tens of thousands of immigrants entered the West Coast of the United States through the Angel Island Immigration Station. Located in San Francisco’s North Bay, not far from Alcatraz Island, the buildings were nearly forgotten and their history almost lost, until one day in 1970, when Alexander Weiss, a California State Park Ranger, re-discovered the treasure they held. His chance discovery began the long journey to save the immigration station, and ultimately, to save the stories hidden within it, and to help us remember its sad, but important role in American history.
The exact number of immigrants who passed through Angel Island is unknown. In addition to being a detention site, the station was also an administrative site. As such, it processed the paperwork for all people coming into and leaving the United States, and not just for those who spent time at the site. Current estimates put the figure of actual immigrants who passed through the Station at about 300,000. Comparatively, Ellis Island received about 12 million throughout the time of its operation.
Of those who arrived at Angel Island, it is estimated that anywhere from 11 percent to 30 percent were ultimately deported, whereas the deportation rate for the East Coast was only 1 percent to 2 percent.
After 1940, the station was used briefly as a detention site for the internment of Japanese nationals returning to Japan and World War II prisoners of war. In 1946, the site was finally closed down and abandoned by the Army.
The detainees at the Angel Island Immigration Station were kept in very tight, closed quarters, sleeping six people on each three-tiered set of bunk beds.
When Ranger Weiss rediscovered the site in 1970, the Parks Administration did not share his enthusiasm for preerving the buildings and the poetry written on and carved into their walls. In fact, the Parks Administration was planning to demolish the buildings — the former employee cottages had already been burned down for the filming of Robert Redford’s The Candidate.
Weiss then alerted San Francisco State University Professor George Araki, whose class he was attending at the time, and, along with Araki’s colleague Mak Takahashi, they arranged to photograph all the walls that had poems carved into and written on them. Soon after, students in Asian American studies classes were taking trips to Angel Island and word began to spread about the elaborate poetry carvings and writings that were a hidden treasure of American history.
The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation was founded in 1983 and is the primary advocate for the site’s preservation, restoration and interpretation. In 1997, the Angel Island Immigration Station was named a National Historic Landmark. The site will be closed to the public from November 2004 through 2005 as it finally undergoes the first phase of a long-awaited renovation.