This comparison of the Ellis Island (1892-1954) and Angel Island (1910-1940) Immigration Stations highlights the range of functions and priorities in the enforcement of immigration policy. Ellis Island handled primarily immigrants from Europe who faced the fewest legal restrictions because they were viewed as the most assimilable and suited for U.S. citizenship. At Ellis Island, the priority was to process them as efficiently and expediently as possible despite their high numbers and efforts to enforce restrictions against entry by persons with contagious diseases or other unwanted attributes such as likelihood to become public charges (LPC), anarchist politics, or criminality. In contrast, Angel Island’s main function was to police entries by Asians whose immigration was heavily restricted and who were subjected to extension periods of detention and scrutiny for illegal entry. Rates of denial reveal these differences of law and treatment with Ellis Island having very low percentages compared to Angel Island.
Symbolically in U.S. immigration history, the United States has had two “gates” providing access at its east and west coasts: Ellis Island in New York harbor and Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. The Ellis Island Immigration station operated from 1892 until 1954 and is most famous as the point of entry for immigrants, largely from Europe, with the Statue of Liberty standing welcome. Angel Island, on the other hand, operated between 1910 and 1940 and served primarily to bar entry to excluded immigrants crossing the Pacific, particularly Chinese and other Asians who were targeted by race for the severest immigration restrictions between 1882 until 1965.
Comparing the operations and scope of Ellis Island and Angel Island illustrates the wide array and complexity of immigration administration responsibilities, which range from detecting and expelling persons without authorized entry rights to courteously and expeditiously processing persons with legal entry permission for a range of purposes including temporary visits with limited rights of employment and residency along with those immigrating permanently on their way to becoming U.S. citizens. The stark differences in responsibilities give the immigration administration a deeply split personality because the contrasts in legal rights and protections due to U.S. citizens, legal temporary residents, and unauthorized residents are so stark. U.S. citizens are protected by due process and constitutional guarantees of civil rights while the other two groups are liable for detention and deportation with limited civil rights protections and are subject to the full authority of the immigration bureaucracy as foreign persons.
Immigration is one of the two most complex areas of legal practice because immigration law is so complex and intersects with many areas of critical national interests such as all labor sectors, international relations, and all forms of international partnerships in areas such as business, cultural and scientific exchanges, refugees and asylum, tourism, and environmental causes. This multifaceted operations can be understood through the many changes of location of the immigration administration within executive departments as its primary responsibilities have changed over time. When founded in 1891, the Immigration Bureau was housed, as a matter of international commerce, in the Department of the Treasury, then moved to the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, housed completely in the Department of Labor in 1913, then the Department of Justice in 1940, and now is housed within the newly constituted and expanded Department of Homeland Security in 2002.
The twin responsibilities for welcome and policing symbolized by Ellis Island and Angel Island depended on terms set forth in immigration law. Angel Island’s primary function as a detention center resulted from the goal of sharply constricting, if not outright ending, immigration from Asia. From the start of systematic federal efforts to control immigration in 1882 until 1965, the primary consideration for immigration was based on race and national origins, heavily weighted to favor western and northern Europeans who were associated with immigration from the colonial and early republican eras. In contrast, starting in 1790, Asian immigrants were barred from citizenship by naturalization as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” a racial restriction that was not entirely removed until 1953. In 1882, Chinese became the first and only group defined by race for severe immigration restriction with only a handful of narrowly defined “exempt” categories retaining legal rights of entry. A trickle of Chinese continued to come, with many cases involving a complicated blend of fraud and family reunification—once Chinese had arrived and sought to reunite with family members, many had only illegal means for bringing over actual children and wives. Angel Island’s priority was to screen Chinese for legal entry while holding them in detention—processes which required an average of two weeks which extended to as much as two years. Japanese faced less onerous reception as the Japanese government undertook to prescreen its citizens before allowing them to depart for the United States under restrictions agreed upon in the Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907-1908). After 1917, the Barred Zone Act banned immigration from a region extending from the Southeast Asian peninsula to the Middle East. Intended to secure the United States’ west coast from trans-Pacific immigrants, the Angel Island gate was primarily closed.
The Europeans crossing the Atlantic, in contrast, never faced the same categorical bars against their potential to become U.S. citizens and faced comparatively fewer restrictions against their immigration. Ellis Island processing sought to expeditiously admit all but those who might be likely to become public charges, or bear communicable diseases, and lasted an average of three hours. Even when Congress imposed stricter controls with the national origins quota system starting in 1921, European immigrants were processed relatively quickly through a visa system that documented their legal permission to enter the United States. The “remote control”* system required that potential visitors and immigrants first apply for entry visas at U.S. diplomatic offices closest to their points of origin. Those whose visas were denied would not embark on the journey. Although many European immigrants experienced Ellis Island with great fear that they would be turned away, in comparison to the barriers facing Asians on Angel Island, the New York immigration station served primarily as a gateway into their new American lives.
Objectives: Students will compare Angel Island and Ellis Island and categorize each as an immigration entry point and/or a detention facility using official government definitions.
Guiding Questions: How were Angel Island and Ellis Island similar and different as immigration stations? How were the experiences of immigrants who went through Angel Island similar to and different from immigrants who went through Ellis Island? What were the purposes of immigration entry points?
Introductory Activity Option One (Assessing Prior Knowledge)-
In groups of two to three, have students create a t-chart and label one side Ellis Island, and the other side Angel Island. In three minutes, have students list whatever they know about both Ellis and Angel Islands.
Student groups will compare their t-charts with each other and share out what they noticed about their lists.
Introductory Activity Option Two (Relevance)-
Have students read an excerpt from Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” on the handout.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Ask students to annotate (text, graphics, drawings, etc.) the poem with examples from history, current events, and their own families that either/both support or refute the claims of the poem.
Volunteers can share out their annotations.
The promise of immigration to the United States based on the poem and the reality of the process.
Guided Practice: Document Stations-
Have copies of each source at different stations throughout the classroom, with a handout of the questions (DBQs) for each student.
Students will move from station to station until they have answered all the DBQs. Students can work in groups.
Essay: Compare the immigration process and experience of Ellis Island with the immigration process and experience of Angel Island. In your conclusion, explain why you think the similarities and differences existed between the two.
Poster: Using Emma Lazarus’ poem students will create a visual that interprets the poem based on their conclusions from the sources.
Extending the Lesson–
Have students access the Galveston Immigration Database. Choose one year, split up the boats and names among students and have students as a class create a chart or map that lists countries of origin and destinations for that year.
Based on what students find, take the most listed country of origin and explore the historical context that may have led people to come to the United States during that time.
Smithsonian Magazine 1917 Immigration Act
Until 1882, when the federal government centralized control, immigration in the United States was regulated largely by individual states. With the passage of the 1891 Immigration Act, the United States government created the Immigration Bureau under the Treasury Department and a formalized immigration process was soon implemented. As a part of this process, immigration officials at ports of entry, such as Ellis Island and Angel Island, would have the power and discretion to enact laws and policies passed by the U.S. Congress. The following sources reveal some of the ways this process took shape and the experiences of those who went through it.
Port of Entry: Any location in the United States or its territories that is designated as a point of entry for aliens and U.S. citizens. All district and files control offices are also considered ports, since they become locations of entry for aliens adjusting to immigrant status (https://www.uscis.gov/tools/glossary/port-entry)
Detention Facility: Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) enforces the nation’s immigration laws in a fair and effective manner. It identifies and apprehends removable aliens, detains these individuals when necessary and removes illegal aliens from the United States (Retrieved from U.S. ICE). Non-U.S. citizens who are apprehended and determined to need custodial supervision are placed in detention facilities (Retrieved from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
SOURCE 1: Excerpt from Mary Margaret Mullins Gordon Oral History (Retrieved from NPS.gov )
When I saw Ellis Island, it’s a great big place, I wondered what we were going to do in there. We all had to gather your bags, and the place was crowded with people and talking, and crying, people were crying. And we passed through some of the halls there, big open spaces there, and there was bars, and there was people behind these bars, and they were talking different languages, and I was scared to death. I thought I was in jail. And you had to go to be examined by the doctor. We all stood in a big line, men and women. Gradually each one went into this little room. It was a little corner room, where the doctor was there, [with] one or two nurses. You had to strip down… Finally when you come out… You grab your bag and you button yourself up the best way you can, and then you were taken to another room… And we were told to sit…Finally my name was called, and I got up, and come over to the counter, and a door opened behind the counter at the corner, and these two ladies come from behind… My two aunts, Aunt Mame and Aunt Nell. I recognized them from their pictures.
[Question from immigration officers] “Do you know these ladies?” And I said, “Yes.” “Who are they?” “That’s my aunt, my Aunt Margaret and my Aunt Nell.” “Well, what are their names?” I said, “Mrs. Cook and Mrs. Budd.” I was shaking like a leaf. And they said, “Who’s your grandmother? What was her maiden name?” They asked me a whole lot of questions… “How much money have you got?” I think I had about five pounds, I don’t know… [The guards] lifted up the thing, and my aunts came around to me… My younger aunt put her arms around me and hugged me and said, “Let’s get out of here.”…
1) List at least three steps Mary Margaret Mullins Gordon took as she went through Ellis Island.
2) How did this process make her feel? Why do you think it made it her feel that way?
3) Based on the questions from the immigration officers, what do you think they were trying to find out?
In which continent are most of the countries listed in source 2?
In 1900, what were the three countries of origins with the highest percentage of immigrants coming through Ellis Island?
Literacy Test Card, 1919. From the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Immigrants 16 years and older had to pass a literacy test to enter the United States. They were required to read a passage from the Bible in their native language, or to follow instructions printed on a card in their native language.
What languages are written on the card?
What would be the country of origin for the individual who would be required to read the card?
Why do you think the United States began to require a literacy test for immigrants?
SOURCE 4: Excerpt from Jennie Wu’s Angel Island Story (Retrieved from AIISF.org)
It was a cold dark night when she arrived on the docks of San Francisco, and was immediately transferred from the ship to a shuttle boat to Angel Island. When she arrived on the island, Jennie was ushered to the women’s quarters where she waited for interviews, medical exams and processing. The bottom bunk bed in a large barrack would be her home while on Angel Island. The women’s quarters was surrounded by a high wire fence confining the occupants to just a small yard. She would often peer out through the fence, wishing she could hike out into the surrounding tree covered hills. Luckily, there were many children her age in the barracks, and she would have companionship and playmates to occupy her time. During the “quarantine” period, there was no contact with family members at all. The only contact with her family would be in the form of occasional care packages of snacks and food sent by her father and mother.
The Immigration Service hired a Chinese cook to prepare meals for the guests, and as Jennie vividly remembered, the food was less than appetizing…a thin stew of mostly bean sprouts, vegetable scraps and rice showed up on the tables every day. As seen through the eyes of an eleven year old, the food would become a lasting memory, but the bonding with her new friends and playmates was a great diversion.
Two weeks into her stay on the Island, a very significant event happened. She was rudely awakened one night by a female guard running through the barracks yelling for everyone to get up and get out… “FIRE!”… By dawn’s early light, the women’s quarters was reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes… The ladies were led to the hospital building, which would be their new temporary home. For Jennie, it would be her new home for one more week.
On her third week on Angel Island, Jennie was called in for another interview. Unbeknownst to her, her father Tse Shan was also being interviewed in a separate room. The interviews went well and finally, after three weeks as a guest of the Angel Island Immigration Station, Jennie was in the arms of her father and reunited with her family.
Based on the passage, what would keep Jennie and her family from getting to San Francisco?
How long did Jennie and her father stay at Angel Island?
Why do you think the immigration officers separated Jennie and her father?
SOURCE 5: Poems from the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station
Translation of #14:
The night is cool as I lie stiff on the steel bunk.
Before the window the moon lady shines on me.
Bored, I get up and stand beneath the cold window.
Sadly, I count the time that’s elapsed.
It is already mid-autumn.
We should all honor and enjoy her.
But I have not prepared even the most rifling gift and I feel embarrassed.
Translation of #56:
The young children do not yet know worry.
Arriving at the Golden Mountain, they were
Imprisoned in the wooden building.
Not understanding the sad and miserable
Situation before their eyes,
They must play all day like calves.
Drawing from source 4, in what kind of building is the author of poem #14 as s/he writes?
To what other institution does the author of poem #56 describe his/her time on Angel Island?
How do the authors feel about being on Angel Island? Why do they feel that way?
SOURCE 6: Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
(Requires INTERNET ACCESS)
https://aiisf.org/education/station-history/photo-gallery (DBQs should address the photo gallery as a whole)
What do you notice about the photographs?
Where do you think many of the people in the photographs are coming from?
What are some of the countries of origin you can recognize based on clothing?
SOURCE 7: Interview Questions
How many total questions are in the interview for individuals going through Ellis Island?
How many total questions are in the interview for individuals going through Angel Island?
Based on the questions for Ellis Island, what do you think immigration officials were most worried about?
Based on the questions for Angel Island, what do you think immigration officials were most worried about?
Why do you think the questions for each immigration station were different? (hint: which immigration law was passed in 1882?)
What do you notice about the plans for Angel Island buildings?
Based on these plans, what are some steps migrants must take to get through Angel Island?
What do you think is on the second floor? Explain.
What percentage of immigrants were rejected at Ellis Island vs. Angel Island?
What was the average length of stay at Ellis Island vs. Angel Island?
Based on the given definitions of port of entry and detention center, how would you classify Ellis Island and Angel Island? Explain your answer.
The Supreme Court designates the authority to legislate and to enforce immigration restrictions a matter of federal authority rather than a state or local power.
This law prohibited the recruitment to the United States of unfree laborers and women for “immoral purposes” but was enforced primarily against Chinese.
This law was a major shift in U.S. immigration policy toward growing restrictiveness. The law targeted Chinese immigrants for restriction-- the first such group identified by race and class for severely limited legal entry and ineligibility for citizenship.
Legislated a few months after the Chinese Exclusion Law, this immigration legislation expanded the ranks of excludable aliens to include other undesirable persons and attributes such as "convicts," "lunatics," and "those likely to become a public charge."
Congress quickly came to realize the challenges of enforcing immigration exclusions, leading it to authorize and fund a dedicated immigration bureau responsible both for processing legal immigrants and enforcing immigration restrictions.
Although this law is best known for its creation of a “barred zone” extending from the Middle East to Southeast Asia from which no persons were allowed to enter the United States, its main restriction consisted of a literacy test intended to reduce European immigration.
To further limit immigration, this law established extended "national origins" quotas, a highly restrictive and quantitatively discriminatory system. The quota system would remain the primary means of determining immigrants' admissibility to the United States until 1965.
Immigration within the American hemisphere remained uncapped until 1965; however, in 1924 Congress authorized funding for the Border Patrol to regulate crossings occurring between immigration stations.
Blease's Law criminalized crossing the border outside an official port of entry. Primarily designed to restrict Mexican immigration, the law made “unlawfully entering the country” a misdemeanor and returning after a deportation a felony.
This law set the main principles for immigration regulation still enforced today. It applied a system of preferences for family reunification (75 percent), employment (20 percent), and refugees (5 percent) and for the first time capped immigration from the within Americas.
The 1976 Amendments extended to the Western Hemisphere a per country ceiling of 20,000 and a modified preference system for arrivals. In 1978, the law was further amended to establish a single worldwide annual ceiling of 290,000.
To address the problem of unauthorized immigration, Congress implemented through bipartisan agreement a multi-pronged system that provided amnesty for established residents, increased border enforcement, enhanced requirements of employers, and expanded guestworker visa programs.
Building on the steps taken with IRCA in 1986, IIRIRA further empowered federal authorities to enforce immigration restrictions by adding resources for border policing and for verification of employment credentials.
After the attacks of September 11th, the U.S. government acted to expand the budget, staffing, and powers of the immigration enforcement bureaucracy.
The Homeland Security Act created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by consolidating 22 diverse agencies and bureaus. The creation of DHS reflected mounting anxieties about immigration in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
Passed in October 2006, this law mandated that the Secretary of Homeland Security act quickly to achieve operational control over U.S. international land and maritime borders including an expansion of existing walls, fences, and surveillance.