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Hundreds of thousands of arrivals to the U.S., mostly from Asia, were processed at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Many of them were detained there, sometimes for weeks or even months—simply for being Asian. The station was built in the early 20th century to help enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, one of several laws that were passed to curb immigration during a period when many Americans feared the arrival of foreigners. Some Americans expressed concern that immigrants would take jobs from native-born citizens, while others harbored xenophobic sentiments. In 1882, U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law halted the immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. The law also stated that if Chinese people left the U.S., they had to get certification from the Chinese government to re-enter. In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, which extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for another 10 years. This was the situation when Angel Island opened in 1910. Immigrants who arrived there faced physical exams and interrogations in which they were approached with suspicion, as if they could be criminals. They were asked tough—even trick—questions. Immigrants at Angel Island were treated like prisoners—forced to remain at the station until officials told them whether they could enter the U.S. or would be deported. They waited for months, and sometimes years, housed in barracks. Angel Island continued these practices until 1940. When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the facility was used to process war prisoners from Germany and Japan. Meanwhile, the fact that China was a U.S. ally in the war prompted the U.S. government to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1954, Angel Island became a state park. About 200,000 people visited the station each year, even though they could see only a small section of the barracks that once housed immigrants. The abandoned barracks had been scheduled to be razed in 1970, until a park ranger rediscovered poems that many immigrants had carved into the wooden walls and the historical value of the facility became clear. Officials took pains to restore the immigrants’ poems, many of which had been concealed under layers of paint. Carved in Chinese characters, the poignant verses convey the sadness, anger, and loneliness of being held captive on the island. Between 1880 and 1920, immigration to the U.S. was at its height, and it was changing. Immigrants had been arriving in the U.S. for generations, but until this period, most had come from northern and western Europe. Now, more people were arriving from eastern and southern Europe, as well as from Asia. Many Americans felt that these newcomers had less in common with them. Most were not Protestant and white, as most “real Americans” were. Because of this discrimination, Asian immigrants faced more hostility than European immigrants. Asian immigration wasn’t new. Chinese immigrants had been arriving in the U.S. since the middle of the 19th century. Many of them mined for gold, worked as farm laborers, or helped to build America’s railroads. Angel Island was quite different from Ellis Island in the eastern U.S. where immigrants (most of them European) were usually allowed to leave within hours.

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