Home > Uncategorized > Revisiting the Japanese-American Internment – posted 9/28/2018

Revisiting the Japanese-American Internment – posted 9/28/2018

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the travel ban case this last term, public discussion has compared the current situation with immigrant detention to the Japanese-American internment. Interestingly, in his majority opinion in the travel ban case, Chief Justice Roberts explicitly rejected a ruling from the 1940’s – Korematsu v. United States – that had allowed the government to place Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II.

I think what happened to Japanese-Americans then still remains shrouded. Lip service has been paid to the essential wrongness of the internment and some reparations have been paid but the full story remains inadequately told.

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, public officials and the press demanded the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. The press featured paranoid hysteria, demonizing Japanese-Americans as enemy spies and saboteurs.

A Congressman from Los Angeles, Leland Ford, advocated that “all Japanese, whether citizens or not, be placed in inland concentration camps”.

Military leaders made wild, unsupported claims of sabotage and espionage. The lack of evidence for such crimes by Japanese-Americans was explained away by assertions about their “sneaky nature” and their secret inclination to bear allegiance to Japan. According to military leaders, “racial affinities” of Japanese-Americans predisposed them to disloyalty.

On February 19, 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and his subordinates to designate military zones ” from which any and all persons may be excluded”. General John L. DeWitt, the West Coast army commander, issued orders, backed by criminal penalties, emptying parts of California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona of Japanese-Americans.

The majority of nearly 130,000 Japanese-Americans living in the United States were forcibly relocated from their West Coast homes during the spring of 1942. Once the relocation order was issued, Japanese-Americans were given one week (in some cases, 48 hours) to register with the authorities, gather the possessions they could carry in their hands (usually one suitcase) and report for incarceration.

Out of dire necessity, many internees had to liquidate their assets in a few days, including selling their homes and businesses, at a staggering loss.

Japanese-Americans had to report to 16 “assembly centers” where they lived for months in racetrack barns or on fairgrounds. Those interned slept in stables, livestock stalls and in the open air. The largest site was Santa Anita Race Track in Los Angeles where those interned were moved into horse stalls.

Later, those interned were further removed to ten “relocation centers”. All the internment sites were rural and remote. Topaz in Utah, Minidoka in Idaho, Gila River and Poston in Arizona, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Amache in Colorado, Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas and Tule Lake and Manzanar in California were handpicked for isolation.

The internment camps were overcrowded and provided poor living conditions. Those interned were mostly housed in tarpaper-covered barracks of simple frame construction, without running water, plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind. People ate in huge barrack mess halls.

Barbed wire surrounded the camps. Snipers manned guard watchtowers with searchlights illuminating the camps. To call such places “relocation centers” is to miss the reality of punitive confinement.

Throughout the war, many interned Japanese-Americans tried to demonstrate their patriotism by enlisting in the U.S. armed forces. By 1943, the army recruited Japanese-Americans to join new all-Japanese units. Many thousands joined, mostly serving in Europe.

The exclusion orders were ultimately rescinded in December 1944 when it became clear Japan was losing the war. Still, even after Japan surrendered in 1945, the internment did not end. It was another whole year before the last internment camp closed.

Many former internees returned to their communities and attempted to rebuild their lives as hardworking and law-abiding citizens. 43,000 Japanese-Americans left the West Coast to try and start new lives in the East and Midwest. A large number returned to find their goods stolen and their properties sold.

It is now readily apparent that the Japanese-American internment resulted more from racism than from any national security concern posed by Japanese-Americans. It is telling that the 1940’s internment met with almost universal approval by the non-Japanese population. No explanation was ever offered as to why there was no internment of German or Italian-Americans.

Behind the internment lay decades of racism against Asian people of all nationalities. in the early 20th century, organizations like the Asiatic Exclusion League advocated to prevent immigration of people of Asian origin. In 1924, Congress completely shut off the flow of all Japanese immigration.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the Japanese-American internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership”.

Now there is an effort afoot to terminate the Flores Settlement Agreement, the federal consent decree that has shaped detention standards for underage immigrants since 1997. Flores limits the detention of children to a 20 day maximum limit. Changes proposed by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services could lead to the rapid expansion of detention facilities and much longer detention time for children. The new proposed changes do not set limits on the amount of time children could be held in detention.

It is not widely known but according to data from the government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, as of September 19, there were 13,312 immigrant children in federal custody. The number is substantially up from 2,400 children held in May 2017.

While there are certainly differences between the Japanese-American internment and our current situation with immigrants, we need to ask: is this a road we want to go down again?

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