Different Echoes from Angel Island

Drew Keeling


Draft of July, 2016

Draft only: Please contact the author before using or quoting from



Angel Island is sometimes called the Ellis Island of the West.” There are, however, important differences: between the early 20th century histories of these two classic federal immigration stations, between the ways in which transatlantic and transpacific immigration were handled in political debates then, and between the 21st century parallels to those prior debates.


The Ellis Island facility, opened in 1892, was the immigration inspection station at America’s largest port, New York. More than 12 million immigrants, over 85% of all arriving at that port, were inspected at Ellis Island, and it is estimated that over 80% of those inspected left the island within hours.


The Angel Island facility, opened in 1912, served primarily as a detention depot at the port of San Francisco where immigration between 1900 and 1914 was less than 1% that of New York. Most immigrants to San Francisco from Asia after 1912 were processed through Angel Island, spending at least a few days there, and in a sizable fraction of instances, many months.


In the peak immigration years at Ellis Island, before 1914, when over two-thirds of all US immigrants arrived there, the key U.S. immigration policy debate was over whether or not to enact a restrictive literacy test, then thought likely to block about one-third of the inflow from Europe. On the west coast, however, official policy was already then mostly restrictive, and most potential immigration from Asia was blocked by the ethnically discriminatory 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.


In 1906-07, an important component of compromise negotiations -between pro-immigration Republicans in the House of Representatives and restrictionist Republicans in the Senate- was the extension of restriction to Japanese immigrants. Japanese had, until then, been spared anything like the Chinese Exclusion Act. Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt’s articulated respect for Japan’s military prowess in defeating Russia in 1905 had helped him broker the peace treaty that ended the war between an ascendant Japanese empire and a declining Czarist empire, and had won him the Nobel Peace Prize. The U.S. president used this diplomatic entree to help square the circle of Republican Party ambiguity on immigration policy [Keeling, Business of Transatlantic Migration, p. 194].


A specially-designed clause in the resulting 1907 Immigration Act enabled Roosevelt to later negotiate the “Gentleman’s Agreement,” whereby Japan reduced migration to America in return for a rolling back of discrimination against Japanese immigrant children attending California public schools. By this promise of extending restriction against the roughly 3% of U.S. immigration coming from Asia, Roosevelt and his emissaries secured bicameral support for continuing an essentially non-restrictive policy towards the roughly 93% of U.S. immigration coming from Europe.


The political readiness in 2013 to provide increased funding for further cracking down on the minority of today’s immigration stemming from illegal border crossings, echoed the willingness, in 1907, to tighten restrictions upon the small minority of U.S. immigration coming then from Asia. The echo from Angel Island, built to keep most Asians out, has thus reinforced the echo from Ellis Island, built to allow most Europeans in [Bob Barde, Golden Gate, p. 13], thanks to political compromising. Both echoes still ring over a century later, in part because, as Erika Lee [At America’s Gates, p. 251] puts it:


“We are indeed a ‘nation of immigrants,’ but we are also a ‘gatekeeping nation,’ and it is the tension between the two identities that continues to shape not only America’s ambivalent immigration policy but also American’s ambivalence toward immigrants.”



Other sources (full citations -also for those listed above) are here): Statistics from U.S. Bureau of Immigration, Cannato, American Passage, McKeown, Melancholy Order, and primary sources here.