In thinking about the contours of immigrant detention and deportation in CA, no site embodies the early era of immigration control in CA like Angel island in the San Francisco Bay. From 1910 to 1940, the United States operated an immigration station on the island that processed nearly a million immigrants from more than 80 countries. European immigrants faced a simple screening and were detained infrequently. Chinese immigrants, subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were detained anywhere from 90 days to 20 months while their applications were considered. Many Chinese detainees expressed their anxiety and despair by writing and carving on the wooden barrack walls. (some poems are still legible today).
Immigration detention is often overlooked as a pillar of the nation’s carceral archipelago. This omission is rooted in a decision made over a century ago by the Supreme Court that determined human confinement in the pursuit of deportation is ‘not imprisonment in a legal sense.’ Immigrant detention operates, in a legal sense, separate and apart from imprisonment but fills jails, prisons, and detention facilities across the country. Angel island, across the Bay from San Quentin State Prison, played a major role in the settlement of the West — but did so while caging immigrants in a “legal” manner.