Lessons of Japanese American Internment

A registry of Muslim immigrants speaks to a dark chapter of American history

1958

 

Manzanar was the largest of the 10 internment camps that held over 120,000 people systemwide. While my family was held at the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona, the Manzanar was one of the most prominent camps in the country. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.
Manzanar was the largest of the 10 internment camps that held over 120,000 people systemwide. While my family was held at the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona, the Manzanar was one of the most prominent camps in the country. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.
By Connor Jang
By Connor Jang

We like to think we learn from our mistakes, but we often don’t.

Last week, a Trump spokesperson said the forced relocation and incarceration of my family among over a hundred thousand predominantly Japanese Americans was a legal precedent for a registry of Muslim immigrants. Just because it’s been done before does not mean we can or should do it again.

The wholly unfounded accusations of subversion and treachery of 120,000 Japanese American men, women and children was white America’s backlash against a people whose only crime was that they looked like an enemy. A Muslim registry is no different.

“We did it in World War II, with the Japanese — call it what you will,” the Trump spokesperson said.

He can call it what he wants, but I’ll call it bigotry and stereotyping that irreparably and violently uprooted families from their homes, neighborhoods, jobs and families.

It’s unthinkable that the United States would consider going down this dark road again. But it was also unthinkable over 60 years ago to 120,000 people, yet it happened.

When my grandmother received financial reparations and a cookie-cutter apology from the president, she thought we had learned. While the $20,000 couldn’t buy back the years of her childhood spent behind a fence in the desert, it at least acknowledged what the United States did was wrong.

It was not a long letter — only two paragraphs, but President George H.W. Bush acknowledged the injustices of internment and swore on the United States’s “resolve to rectify injustices and uphold the rights of individuals.”

A national registry for Muslim immigrants is utterly unconstitutional, unpatriotic and wrong. Vilifying those that seek a new life in a new country cannot and will not be normalized and accepted, despite Donald Trump and his supporters’ rhetoric.

Ideas like the Japanese American Internment system aren’t new. After 9/11, President George W. Bush instituted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which for years served as a database of men over the age of 16 traveling to the United States from certain countries that were known to be “havens of terrorism.” Yet, 24 of the 25 states with that designation were majority Muslim countries, and the 25th was North Korea.

These programs targeted Muslim communities immigrating to the US, creating additional barriers like having to be interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed; only being allowed to enter and exit the country through designated points; and needing to communicate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of their plans and if they change.

It’s xenophobic sentiments and policies like NSEERS that lead to the sweeping denial of basic human rights.

A tar paper barrack in the Arizona sun at the Poston War Relocation Center was my family’s home for three years. My great-grandparents were immigrants from Japan; however, my grandmother — like many accused of subversions — was born and raised in the United States.

The fences kept people inside the camps, but no one would try to escape. The desert stretched for miles in all directions. The dust storms came and went, dumping pounds of fine soot and dirt through the cracks into the stalls that housed multiple families, whose private spaces were divided by bedsheets — if they brought them.

Executive Order 9066, authorizing defense commanders to exclude certain groups of people from sensitive areas, came so abruptly that many left their possessions behind. Detainees could only bring what they could carry, and most lost almost everything.

These programs are decidedly discriminatory, insinuating that the United States doesn’t trust communities seeking a life as an American. We mustn’t further institutionalize hate and prejudice through programs that deliberately target any group of people .

Nov. 28 marks the 71st anniversary of the closure of Poston, the camp that held my family. We must do everything in our power to ensure that another never opens.

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Co-Editor-in-Chief of City on a Hill Press. I like running, swimming and biking. Next step is probably a triathlon, but haven't gotten there yet.