It was known, simply, as "the wooden building." For 30 years, from 1910 to 1940, the barren walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station gave mute testimony to the experiences of roughly 175,000 Chinese immigrants who were detained and exhaustively interrogated on this island in San Francisco Bay, the West Coast's insidious version of Ellis Island.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was intended to prevent Chinese laborers from entering the country. This black mark on America's history received long-awaited recognition last week when President George W. Bush signed into law the Angel Island Immigration Station Restoration and Preservation Act.
The legislation, a result of a 35-year effort by the nonprofit Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, authorizes up to $15 million to establish a museum and genealogical research center on the island and to help preserve two original structures, including barracks with chicken-wire clerestories and melancholy graffiti - eloquent poems carved on wooden walls and routinely puttied and painted over by the authorities. The immigration station, nestled in a eucalyptus grove on the largest island in the bay, is a national historic landmark, though it is closed to the public.
The Angel Island facility was the point of entry for roughly 75 percent of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, and its preservation has underscored the story of the "paper sons and daughters" who used false identities to circumvent the Exclusion Act, the first legislation in U.S. history to ban a specific ethnic group. In contrast to Ellis Island, where millions of European immigrants were processed largely with swift industrial efficiency, the Angel Island station was designed for exclusion.
Upon a ship's arrival, officials would separate the immigrants on board. Those bearing first-class paperwork were allowed to disembark in San Francisco, while those remaining - mostly Chinese, but also a smattering of Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Russian, and other groups - were ferried to Angel Island.
"Ellis Island was created to let Europeans in," said Robert Barde, deputy director of the Institute of Business and Economic Research at the University of California, Berkeley, who is writing a book on immigration. "Angel Island was created to keep the Chinese out."
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