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January 21: The Ellis Island of the West

Lawrence Bush
January 21, 2017
The Angel Island Immigration Station was opened in the San Francisco Bay on this date in 1910, to serve as the portal -- and detention center, often for months at a time -- for immigrants entering the U.S. The facility was created primarily to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which allowed entry only to diplomats, teachers, clergy, and other “exempt classes” from Asian countries. Whereas Ellis Island in New York harbor rejected about 2 percent of candidates for immigration, Angel Island rejected about 18 percent, and detained and investigated most arrivals considerably longer than Ellis Island. Jews who arrived at Angel Island came in two waves, fleeing the Russian Revolution after 1920 and fleeing Nazism via the Far East, and were admitted at rates similar to Ellis Island’s. The West Coast facility burned down in 1940, and the island served as a site for processing prisoners of war for a few more years before being abandoned. It began a national landmark in 1963 and today hosts an immigration museum open from March to October. “Men were separated from women and children, then proceeded for medical exams, a humiliating experience for Asians, whose medical practice does not include disrobing before the leering eyes of strangers or being probed and measured by metal calipers. Here, they would also be tested for parasitic infections. Consequences could be severe for failing this test, including hospitalization at their own expense or deportation. After the examinations they were then assigned a detention dormitory and a bunk, where they would await their interrogators, the Board of Special Inquiry. Circumventing the Chinese Exclusion Act became a first order concern for most immigrants from China . . . Many Chinese immigrants resorted to buying false identities at great cost, which allowed them to immigrate as either children of exempt classes or children of natives. In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed municipal records which created an opportunity for the city’s Chinese residents to claim that they were born here and therefore were American citizens.” --Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.