From Castle Clinton National Monument to Golden Gate National Recreation Area, national park sites explore the stark contrasts of the immigrant experience.
The United States is frequently described as a nation of immigrants — a country built on the hard work, innovation and courage of those who came here in search of opportunities and a better life. But the immigration narrative is not only about newfound prosperity and triumph over adversity. It has also been a story of discrimination and, at times, tragedy. Here are eight national park sites that explore the highs and lows of the immigrant experience.
1. Ellis Island (part of Statue of Liberty National Monument), New York
In the minds of many Americans, Ellis Island has come to represent a period of massive immigration to this country — and for good reason. Between 1892 and 1954, some 12 million people passed through the doors of the immigration station there, and estimates suggest that these immigrants and their descendants account for half the country’s population today. Most of the people processed at Ellis Island came by boat, and as they first entered New York Harbor they were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, which, like Ellis Island, is now part of a national park site. The flow of immigrants slowed after tougher legislation and nationality quotas were implemented in the 1920s. The Great Depression further discouraged would-be immigrants, and soon the number of deportations exceeded the number of admissions. During World War II, the island hosted a detention facility for U.S. residents who were citizens of Japan, Germany or Italy and were deemed potentially dangerous to the country. The onset of the Cold War led to a spike in detentions in the early 1950s, but by 1953 the number of detainees had decreased substantially, and in 1954 the immigration station closed. In 1965, the island was incorporated into the Statue of Liberty National Monument managed by the National Park Service, and the work to restore the site is ongoing. Today, the main building of the immigration station houses an immigration museum visited by some 2 million people each year — about twice the number of immigrants processed during the station’s busiest year in 1907.
2. Golden Spike National Historical Park, Utah
Golden Spike National Historical Park, designated in 1957, marks the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, but for a long time the story of the thousands of Chinese immigrants who made that achievement possible was all but ignored. They worked hard, risked their lives, and yet they received only a fraction of what their white counterparts were paid. In addition, none of them seemed to have been pictured in the famous champagne shot that celebrated the meeting of the two railroads at Promontory Summit. Now, thanks to the advocacy of descendants of the Chinese workers and others, the stories of the thousands of Chinese immigrants who helped carve a path through the Sierra Nevada are finally coming to the fore. Around the 150th anniversary of the event this past May, exhibits, performances and ranger programs helped educate visitors about the crucial contributions of the Chinese workers to this transportation feat.
3. César E. Chávez National Monument, California
César Chávez himself was not an immigrant — he was born in Arizona to Mexican American parents, but many of the farm workers he advocated for were. By the 1960s, California’s agricultural economy relied heavily on migrant workers from Mexico and the Philippines, but those workers suffered from harsh working conditions, low wages and rampant discrimination. In addition, they had little to no opportunities to make their voices heard and bring about reforms. Chávez and others such as Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong sought to change that. Through community organizing, strikes and the creation of unions, they advanced the cause of farm workers, giving hope to disenfranchised people and achieving many successes, including higher wages, heath care and pension plans, mandated clean water and restrooms, grievance procedures, and regulated pesticide use. The headquarters of the United Farm Workers of American union and the larger farm worker movement as well as Chávez’s house were located in the small community of La Paz, near Bakersfield. It’s also where Chávez was buried after he died in 1993. President Barack Obama declared the site a national monument in 2012.
4. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
The Angel Island immigration station, located on the largest island in San Francisco Bay, was the main immigration processing center on the West Coast between 1910 and 1940 — hence its nickname, “the Ellis Island of the West.” Many who were processed there were immigrants from Asia, but when the station opened, public sentiment had turned against these communities in the U.S. As the economy slowed down in the 1870s, the white population started accusing Chinese immigrants of stealing jobs and bringing down wages, foreshadowing the anti-immigration rhetoric of today. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which severely limited immigration from China. Other pieces of legislation targeting Chinese immigrants followed over the next two decades, and by the beginning of the 20th century, only Chinese immigrants from a few select categories, such as students and ministers, were allowed to enter the country, provided they had the required documentation. Japanese immigrants, whose community in California had grown significantly by that time, became scapegoats, too, and efforts to limit immigration from Japan picked up as a result. As immigrants arrived at Angel Island, families were split (children 12 and younger were allowed to stay with their mothers) and detained in prisonlike conditions. People exhibiting signs of sickness were sent back. Hearings resembled interrogations as officials routinely suspected immigrants of presenting fake documentation. Proceedings often lasted months and sometimes years. Many immigrants expressed their frustration by carving poems into wooden walls. A fire destroyed the administration building in 1940, but the detention barracks and the poems were spared. Today, people can tour the remaining buildings and visit an immigration museum on-site.
5. Manzanar National Historic Site, California
By the early 1940s, the Japanese American community was well implanted in California and other parts of the West and contributed to all facets of the local economy. Resentment toward Japanese Americans was common then, but it rose to a whole new level following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Less than three months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration of nearly all people of Japanese ancestry living in the Western U.S., two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. Many lost their homes, businesses and possessions, being allowed to take only a suitcase with them. Manzanar was the first of 10 incarceration camps to open, and its population at one time topped 10,000 people. Conditions were harsh: Living spaces were cramped, and the hastily constructed barracks did not adequately shelter people from the cold. Manzanar and the other camps closed at the end of World War II, and many of the structures were razed or dismantled. Wanting to preserve the memory of this dark period of our history, Japanese American activists and others pushed for the protection of what remained of the incarceration camps. Thanks in large part to the efforts of the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who was incarcerated at Manzanar, the camp located in the Owens Valley became a national historic site in 1992. Embrey also helped organize annual pilgrimages to the camp attended by camp survivors, descendants and others who use the occasion to reflect on the legacy of the incarceration through speeches, musical performances and emotional debates. The pilgrimage continues to this day.
6. Lowell National Historical Park, Massachusetts
Founded in 1822, the industrial city of Lowell was originally one of the main centers of textile production in the country. At first, the workforce was local, and many of the workers were women known then as “mill girls.” But as much of the industry moved south and wages and working conditions deteriorated, Lowell’s workforce increasingly relied on immigrants willing to take any work they could. Among others, French Canadians, Poles, Russians, Greeks and Portuguese moved to the planned city. The last two textile firms shut down in the 1950s, but the immigrant fabric of the town has remained. The park was created in 1978, and the contributions of Lowell’s immigrants are at the heart of the park’s preservation efforts.
7. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park was not created to tell part of the immigration story, but that story has come to the park nonetheless. Located just 200 miles from Cuba, the seven islands that make up the park have been a destination for Cuban refugees seeking to reach the U.S. For decades, most of those who set foot on U.S. soil secured the right to stay under the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy (that policy was rescinded in 2017). Those who made it left behind chugs — flat-bottom boats made of aluminum, copper or fiberglass — and other objects. For a long time, the chugs were considered trash and were sunk, hauled away or dismantled, but now park staff and others are working to inventory, photograph and preserve some of them. “We’d often have discussions about where they might fit into the scope of collections,” Kelly Clark, the park’s cultural resources specialist, told National Parks magazine last year. “But this is modern history, and there’s a fine line between hugely important cultural material and abandoned property.”
8. Castle Clinton National Monument, New York
Before Ellis Island, there was Castle Clinton. Although less widely known, the fort at the tip of Manhattan processed more than 8 million immigrants between 1855 and 1890, about two-thirds of all the people who immigrated to the U.S. over that period. One reason for the relative obscurity is that most of the immigration records from the Castle Clinton period were destroyed during a catastrophic fire that ravaged the Ellis Island facility in 1897. Castle Clinton has served various purposes in addition to processing immigrants. The fort was originally built just before the War of 1812 and was later turned into an opera house and theater. After the immigration station was closed in 1890, the building housed an aquarium for more than four decades. The national monument was established in 1950, and today Castle Clinton welcomes even more visitors than the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island — in part because the fort is where people can buy their tickets to visit those sites.
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About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.