East Boston (detention facility)

US Gov Name East Boston Detention Station
Facility Type Immigration Detention Station
Administrative Agency Immigration and Naturalization Service
Location East Boston, Massachusetts (42.3667 lat, -71.0333 lng)
Date Opened
Date Closed
Population Description Held Japanese immigrants; German, Italian, and other foreign nationals.
General Description Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention station located in East Boston, Massachusetts.
Peak Population
National Park Service Info

An Immigration and Naturalization Service facility that operated as a detention center for immigrants arriving through the Port of Boston. Its primary function was to prevent immigrants deemed "undesirable" from entering the country. During World War II, it also served as a temporary detention station for "enemy aliens" such as German and Japanese nationals.

Site Background

The East Boston immigration station, located on 287 Marginal Street, began its operation in 1920 and processed approximately 23,000 immigrants during its 34-year history. [1] Though most immigrants arriving through the Port of Boston were inspected at the piers or on board ships, some passengers—such as those suspected of carrying a communicable disease—were sent to the immigration station for secondary examination. It is estimated that only approximately 10 percent of the immigrants who landed in the Port of Boston were processed at the East Boston station. [2]

Passengers requiring additional review were not limited to those who appeared to have a contagious disease; they also included "the illiterate, the insane, criminals, polygamists, anarchists, prostitutes" as well as "young children traveling alone" and "young, unmarried women traveling without guardians." [3] Individuals with questionable paperwork were also sent to the East Boston station, and during the period of Chinese exclusion (1882-1943), Chinese passengers were closely scrutinized in an attempt to prevent non-exempt classes from entering the United States. As a result, most Chinese immigrants coming through the Port of Boston were sent to the East Boston facility for further interrogation and were sometimes asked hundreds of questions in order to prove their identity. [4] The Chinese were also the only group to have segregated detention quarters built for them. [5]

Wartime Detention

During World War II, the East Boston station served an additional function as a temporary detention center for persons labeled "enemy aliens." World War II had begun in Europe in 1939 and on March 30, 1941, Italian and German officers and crews aboard two cargo ships were detained at the East Boston station under an "anti-sabotage" order. [6] Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawai'i, which precipitated the United States entry into World War II, "enemy aliens" in the Boston area were arrested by the FBI and detained at the East Boston facility. On January 19, 1942, the New York Times reported that Harvard University instructor Dr. Karl Otto Heinrich Lange, a German immigrant, and 29 other "enemy aliens" had been held at the East Boston station since the United States declared war on December 8, 1941. [7] By July 14, 1942, the "enemy alien" population was comparatively smaller and included 4 Japanese, 3 Germans, no Italians, and 1 individual of "miscellaneous" nationality. [8] Like other temporary detention centers, East Boston held its "enemy aliens" for 1 to 4 months, and detainees were then released or transferred to other detention facilities or internment camps. [9]

Most of what is known about the Japanese detainees at the East Boston detention center is derived from the recollections of Max Ebel, a German immigrant who was arrested by the FBI in September 1942 and held in the East Boston facility for four months. [10] Though Ebel never discovered why he was picked up, he states that one Japanese detainee had been arrested by the FBI because he had his shoes shined across the street from General Electric while another Japanese man was arrested because his rosary crucifix, which contained a small opening, aroused suspicion. Ebel also recalls the day that he and another German detainee helped save the life of an incarcerated Japanese man who they discovered had slit his own throat in a suicide attempt. [11]

After the War

Following World War II, the East Boston immigration station continued to operate as a facility for processing immigrants requiring further examination until it was shut down in 1954. [12] After its closure, the building was sold and changed ownership several times until it was bought by the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) in 1987. [13] Over the years the property housed a radiator factory, served as a storeroom for TWA Airlines, and eventually became a dumping ground. [14] At some point, Massport stated its intention to demolish the dilapidated property and the Boston Landmarks Commission, the municipal preservation agency for Boston, sought to evaluate the site's eligibility for inclusion as a city landmark. In a 2010 report, the Commission determined that the property met the criteria for Boston Landmark status but did not have enough architectural integrity to warrant a nomination. [15] After the report, Massport moved ahead with its demolition plan and the East Boston immigration station was torn down in April 2011. [16] In June 2012, Massport placed a series of interpretive panels at the Navy Fuel Pier and Piers Park in East Boston that relate the history of immigration through the Port of Boston. [17]

Authored by Laura W. Ng

For More Information

The Boston Globe. "Storied E. Boston immigration hub to be demolished." January 3, 2011.

The Boston Globe. "Gateway to hope and heartache." April 11, 2010.

The City of Boston. "East Boston Immigration Station Study Report." As amended July 13, 2010.

Massport "The East Boston Immigration Station: A History." February 2012.


  1. Boston Landmarks Commission, East Boston Immigration Station Study Report (Boston, MA: City of Boston, 2010).
  2. City of Boston, East Boston Immigration Station Study Report (Boston Landmarks Commission, July 13, 2010), 23.
  3. Massport, The East Boston Immigration Station: A History, December 2012, 18.
  4. Shauna Lo, "Chinese Women Entering New England: Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, Boston, 1911-1925," The New England Quarterly 81, no. 3 (2008): 390.
  5. Massport, The East Boston Immigration Station: A History, 55.
  6. "2 Axis Cargo Ships Seized at Boston," New York Times, March 31, 1941.
  7. "Report Dr. K.O. Lange Held as Enemy Alien," New York Times, January 19, 1942.
  8. Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2003), 252.
  9. Jeffery F. Burton et al., Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, 1st University of Washington Press ed, The Scott and Laurie Oki Series in Asian American Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 380.
  10. Martha Nakagawa, "Snow Country Prison Exhibit Opening Brings Internees Back to Internment Camp," United Tribes News, November 18, 2003, Reprint edition, https://gaic.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/nakagawa20031118.pdf .
  11. Ibid.
  12. Massport, The East Boston Immigration Station: A History.
  13. Ibid.
  14. "Gateway to Hope and Heartache," The Boston Globe, April 11, 2010.
  15. Boston Landmarks Commission, East Boston Immigration Station Study Report.
  16. Massport, The East Boston Immigration Station: A History, 47.
  17. Massport. "The East Boston Immigration Station." Massport.com. (retrieved May 20, 2014).

Last updated Dec. 22, 2023, 12:28 a.m..