As the immigration debate rages on national talk shows and at Board of Supervisors meetings, Angel Island is injecting history into the conversation.
Often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West,” the century-old U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island is one of 13 museums taking part in a program launched last week that grapples with issues of citizenship and identity.
The program — “Face to Face: Immigration Then and Now” — doesn’t advocate for particular policies, but each museum exhibit is set up to encourage visitors to discuss with each other issues surrounding immigration and health care, labor and history.
Angel Island’s exhibit is the nearly 100-year-old poetry of hundreds of mostly Chinese immigrants etched into the walls of the detention buildings. The putty used to cover the writings has shrunk through the years, laying bare tales of hope, despair, deportation and life in limbo, said Dave Matthews, Angel Island park superintendant.
“The walls literally talk to us and tell us the immigrant experience. It’s like the Facebook of the early 1900s,” he said.
The exhibit doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Pacific migration, including unconstitutional Chinese exclusion laws stemming from Americans’ fear that immigrants would take their jobs.
The national project, organized by International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, also includes museums like the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Ellis Island in New York.
“The immigration debate you see on TV or in the town hall meetings is very divisive and tends to leave out history and what we’ve learned from the past,” said Bix Gabriel, director of communications for International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. “Museums are about bringing everyday people together to talk about the larger issues.”
The program is being launched as the issue of immigration takes center stage in San Francisco. Legislation approved by the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee on Monday would prevent local law enforcement from releasing illegal immigrant youths arrested on felony charges to federal immigration officials unless they are convicted. Mayor Gavin Newsom opposes the legislation.
Angel Island timeline
1905: Construction begins on an immigration station to control the flow of Chinese nationals into the country after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
1910: Immigration station, which was primarily a detention center, opens.
1910-1940: Approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants come through Angel Island.
1940: Fire destroys immigration station’s administration building; government abandons station and 200 immigrants are transferred to temporary quarters.
1941: Property returned to Army; when World War II begins, the old detention barracks become a prisoner-of-war processing center for German and Japanese.Source: Angel Island State Park