What these newcomers found when they reached America was discrimination and a series of restrictive anti-Asian laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although all Asians were affected, 97% of the immigrants processed through Angel Island were Chinese.
After the earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed records that verified citizenship, many Chinese residents of California were able to claim citizenship for themselves and dozens of "paper children."
Citizenship papers were then sold to prospective immigrants. Entire villages would often purchase papers for one representative in the hopes that he would return from "Gam Saan," or "Gold Mountain," and share his expected wealth. Immigration officials responded to this deception by detaining all working-class Chinese immigrants for interrogation.
Typical questions asked in these interviews included:
- How many stairs lead up to your house?
- How many chickens did you own?
- Recite your family history.
Those whose answers did not match those of their "paper parents" were deported.
According to Immigration Station docents, almost 10% of the detainees were deported. Rather than face the humiliation of being sent back to their villages, which had pooled meager resources to buy citizenship papers, many deportees took their own lives.
Chinese immigrants were held on Angel Island for weeks, months, or even years while awaiting hearings or appeals on their applications. In contrast, immigrants passing through Ellis Island on American's east coast—who were generally European—were processed within hours or days and merely had to pass medical exams.