Exclusion Island

The historic immigration complex on Angel Island has a spot on a list of nationwide success stories.

Nearly 20 years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places. Last week, the island, which saw an estimated 500,000 people pass through it from 1910 to 1940, was officially listed as a site that has emerged from dire straits to become a modern-day success story.

“We recognized that there was an opportunity to show that preservationists do more than alert people to threats, but have actually been part of the solution in saving places,” says Anthony Veerkamp, the trust’s San Francisco Field Director. “Angel Island would have been highlighted in any context because it was such an important site and true success was achieved there.

“I think it’s especially relevant right now because of the current debates about immigration in America,” he adds. “Angel Island tells a story not so much of inclusion, but of exclusion. The purpose of the facility was not so much to bring people in and welcome people, but to exclude people in compliance with the Chinese Exclusion Act, among other things.”

Vanderkeep is right. While eastern points of immigration like Ellis Island have been beatified as symbols of the great American Melting Pot, Angel Island serves as a reminder of the exclusionary practices targeting Asian immigrants that dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

After being signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act — which prohibited all Chinese laborers from entering the country and was the first law to prohibit the immigration of a specific ethnic group to the U.S. — remained on the books until 1943.

“On the West Coast, we have a place that really was built to keep people out, to guide and to judge who was fit to be an American or not,” says Katherine Toy, Board President of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF). “Back in 1910, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect, and it said that Chinese people — and later, other Asians — were not fit to be American. They were too ‘other.’ People would say, ‘They’re not like us, they won’t assimilate, they’re taking our jobs.’ These are the same cries we hear today. They may be about different groups, but the sentiment is the same.”

This story’s omission from many history books is an analogue to the place itself, which was left derelict for 30 years after its closure in 1940. In fact, the site, which includes the detention barracks, a hospital, and the Immigration Station administrative building (which burned down in 1940) were all slated for demolition — until a park ranger discovered Chinese poetry etched into the barrack walls by immigrants in limbo.

The artifacts led to the appropriation of $250,000 in state funding to turn the Immigration Station into a state monument in 1976, and the ultimate creation of the AIISF in 1983. Then, in 1997, the site was deemed a National Historic Landmark. However, despite its status and rehabilitation efforts over the years, the facilities were in such a state of disrepair that it landed on the National Historic Trust’s endangered places list in 1999.

Since then, the AIISF has worked with California State Parks to complete $40 million worth of restoration. Renovations include landscaping the site of the former administration building and restoring the barracks (completed in 2009). The next big piece of restoration is set to be completed in fall 2018, when the hospital will become the Pacific Coast Immigration Center.

While the barracks have been restored to give people a feel for what detainees’ actual living conditions were like and to highlight the historic poems carved into the walls, the Pacific Coast Immigration Center will serve as a more formal museum to educate visitors of the site’s checkered past. The project carries a $14 million price tag, the final $3 million of which was secured just last summer through the California state budget.

“In the process of restoring the historic building, we did uncover some things, including what used to be two separate entrances to the building — one for Asians and one for non-Asians,” Toy says. “I think it’s telling that, at the time, the building was built with segregated entrances.”

If you’re feeling up for a 1.5-mile hike from the dock to the historic site, right now is probably a good time to brush up on some of America’s ignoble policies toward people who wished to move here in search of a better life. History is most certainly repeating itself today, and the more aware we are of the despicable past of places like Angel Island, the less likely it is that future generations will be visiting a “Trump Era” site just like it many years from now.

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