ICE Health Service Corps pharmacists visit Angel Island

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Recently, several U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Health Service Corps employees, and family members, visited the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island State Park near San Francisco, California.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation provided a guided tour of the immigration station and a rare behind-the-scenes tour of the hospital there to the ICE employees in town for the annual meeting of the American Pharmacists Association.

The name of the island dates to 1775 when Spanish explorers discovered the San Francisco Bay and named the island Isla de Los Angeles. The island had numerous uses over time to include military installations such as Fort McDowell, Camp Reynolds, and currently the U.S. Coast Guard. The structures on the island even housed federal prison inmates prior to the construction of Alcatraz in 1934, as well as hundreds of enemy aliens in World War I and prisoners of war during World War II.

While modeled after Ellis Island in construction, Angel Island does not share its proud history. Angel Island was built to exclude foreign arrivals. Because of its isolation in the harbor, Angel Island was considered ideal for a detention facility, which operated from 1910 to 1940 and processed over one million immigrants from eighty different countries.

As ships came into the harbor, higher class passengers were evaluated onboard and brought to the island only when a medical condition was suspected. Lower class immigrants were transferred by ferry to the island and brought directly to a medical examination room for evaluation. The methods of western medicine were offensive and unsettling to many new arrivals.

In a blatant demonstration of racism, medical personnel separated immigrants into three categories: European, Asiatic and Chinese. The Europeans slept, dined, exercised and were hospitalized separately from the “Asiatics” and Chinese.

Chinese immigrants constituted 97 percent of the people processed at Angel Island. Japan, Russia and India rounded out the top four countries for emigration, respectively. The official capacity on the island was 150 detainees, but held as many as 500 detainees. The living conditions were crowded and dormitory rooms meant for 25 to 30 men actually held 50 to 60 men. The average stay for non-Chinese individuals was two to three days; however, the average stay for Chinese immigrants was usually 3 ½ weeks.

Angel Island remains an important part of the immigration and cultural history of the United States. Unfortunately, the facility served to exclude Chinese immigrants in accordance with public sentiment and law of the time. Immigrants endured a harsh welcome upon arrival to the U.S. The experience of many at Angel Island included unfair treatment, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and blatant prejudice.

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