Angel Island: A Troubling History Lesson in American Immigration

I am always proud to share with people that I am a Guyanese-born American. I immigrated to the United States as a child with my family. While there were parts of the immigration experience that were challenging for me (like transitioning to the school system), the physical journey itself and the citizenship process were straight forward from my perspective.

Once we arrived in America, we were immediately united with members of our family who had come before us and were already working towards fulfilling their dreams in the "land of opportunity."

That was not the case for those who came to America between 1910 and 1940 through the Angel Island Immigration Station, which is located in San Francisco Bay, right next to Alcatraz.


The immigration station functioned as the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island, however the Angel Island facility also enforced policies designed to exclude, rather than welcome, many Pacific Coast immigrants coming from over 80 countries.

This was the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in our country's history. The Angel Island location prevented Chinese immigrants from communicating with those in San Francisco, isolated immigrants with communicable diseases, and, like Alcatraz, was pretty much escape proof.

The waiting time could range from several weeks to several years; the majority of the detainees were Chinese. As one detainee recounted, it was a horrendous experience: "When we arrived, they locked us up like criminals in compartments like the cages at the zoo."

Despite these obstacles, the detainees, once finally allowed in to the country, went on to achieve the American Dream and then some. In fact, one famous immigrant that endured Angel Island is renowned architect I.M. Pei.

You can learn more about the Angel Island experience by watching incredible videos, produced by young people who are interested in capturing the detainee's stories.

Ancestry is currently digitizing many historical records of immigrants who were processed through Angel Island and in 2016 will provide additional information and resources online.

The Angel Immigration Station Foundation is also in the process of raising funds in order to complete the Angel Island State Park Pacific Coast Immigration Center, scheduled to open in 2017.

In learning about this troubling history, I did have to pause and reflect on the contradiction that was Angel Island. A name that sounds so peaceful and welcoming, yet was anything but. We can't undo the impact of families and individuals having their "American Dream" start off as a nightmare. But what we can do is show respect and bring honor to their journeys by learning more while there is still time, so perhaps history may not repeat itself.