Imagine this scene: Tens of thousands of people, mostly families with children, are labeled by the government as a threat to our nation, used as political tools by opportunistic politicians, and caught in a vast gray zone where their civil and human rights are erased by the presumption of universal guilt. Thousands are moved around to makeshift detention centers and sites, where camps are thrown together with more regard to the bottom line than the humanity of the new residents.
That is America today, at our southern border, which asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants alike are seeking to cross. But it is also America in late 1941, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, when overnight my community, my family, and I became the enemy because we happened to look like those who had dropped the bombs. And yet, in one core, horrifying way this is worse. At least during the internment of Japanese-Americans, I and other children were not stripped from our parents. We were not pulled screaming from our mothers’ arms. We were not left to change the diapers of younger children by ourselves.
Photos of children in cages and camps today so strongly evoke the wartime past that former First Lady Laura Bush drew a stark parallel in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history,” Bush wrote. She reminded us that there are dark consequences to such camps for their residents: “This treatment inflicts trauma; interned Japanese have been two times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.”
When a government acts capriciously, especially against a powerless and much-reviled group, it is hard to describe the terror and anxiety. There is nowhere to turn, because the only people with the power to help have trained their guns and dogs upon you. You are without rights, held without charge or trial. The world is upside down, information-less, and indifferent or even hostile to your plight.
And yet, with hideous irony, I can still say, “At least during the internment …”
At least during the internment, when I was just 5 years old, I was not taken from my parents. My family was sent to a racetrack for several weeks to live in a horse stall, but at least we had each other. At least during the internment, my parents were able to place themselves between the horror of what we were facing and my own childish understanding of our circumstances. They told us we were “going on a vacation to live with the horsies.” And when we got to Rohwer camp, they again put themselves between us and the horror, so that we would never fully appreciate the grim reality of the mosquito-infested swamp into which we had been thrown. At least during the internment, we remained a family, and I credit that alone for keeping the scars of our unjust imprisonment from deepening on my soul.
I cannot for a moment imagine what my childhood would have been like had I been thrown into a camp without my parents. That this is happening today fills me with both rage and grief: rage toward a failed political leadership who appear to have lost even their most basic humanity, and a profound grief for the families affected.
How do political leaders convince themselves of the virtues of such a policy? History shows it doesn’t take much. After Japan dropped its bombs, the political scapegoats were obvious. As America geared up for war, the administration needed some way to show that it was being tough on Japan, as it had little military success at the early going to trot out. Being tough on Japan easily translated into being tough on the Japanese here in America. No matter that most of us weren’t even Japanese nationals; nearly two-thirds of those imprisoned were U.S. citizens, after all. But as the Wartime Relocation Authority made clear, “a Jap is a Jap.” That was their own “zero-tolerance” policy.
But how to justify the sweeping internment of 120,000 people, when none of us had actually done anything wrong? It was Earl Warren — the same man who as chief justice would forge a famously liberal Supreme Court — who helped move that along. Warren was the attorney general for the state of California at the time, and he had designs on the governorship, which he won in late in 1942. Warren took the absence of evidence of sabotage or spying on the West Coast by any Japanese-American as justification to declare that this was evidence that we must be planning something truly hidden and deeply sinister.
It was a lie, and a big one, but it was one repeated enough, and said with enough conviction, that the rest of the country went along with it. We were the murderers, the thugs, the animals then — and since you couldn’t tell the good from the bad, you might as well round up everyone in the name of national security.
Whenever I draw parallels between today’s border actions and the internment camps of World War II, I am flooded with comments “reminding me” that it was a Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed Executive Order 9066 and set the internment into motion. This only underscores my point, however: The United States’ flirtation with authoritarianism is not tied to any political party. Even people of good heart and conscience can be swept up in the frenzy. Earl Warren was a Republican, and while he ultimately came to view his role in the internment to be one of his greatest follies, at the time neither he nor others in government — with rare exceptions, like Ralph Carr, the governor of Colorado — saw anything wrong with what he’d done.
But unless we act now, we will have failed to learn at all from our past mistakes. Once again, we are flinging ourselves into a world of camps and fences and racist imagery — and lies just big enough to stick.
There are at least two big lies right now. The first is that there’s a law on the books passed by the Democrats, and that the Justice Department has no choice but to enforce it. This lie passes the buck and confuses the public, offering a diversionary talking point to dutiful lieutenants willing to toe the White House line. Like FDR, Donald Trump has wide latitude in setting the priorities of law enforcement, and there is no law that says we must have “zero tolerance” for children at our borders, just as there was nothing that said all persons of Japanese descent, even children within orphanages, were to be rounded up and relocated.
The second lie is that those at our borders are criminals, and therefore deserve no rights. But the asylum-seekers at our borders are breaking no laws at all, nor are their children who accompany them. The broad brush of “criminal” today raises echoes of the wartime “enemy” to my ears. Once painted, both marks are impossible to wash off. Trump prepared his followers for this day long ago, when he began to dehumanize Mexican migrants as drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and animals. Animals might belong in cages. Humans don’t.
I wish that those, like me, who lived through this nightmare before didn’t have to sound the alarm again. But as my father once told me, America is a great nation but also a fallible one — as prone to great mistakes as are the people who inhabit it. As a survivor of internment camps, I have made it my lifelong mission to work against them being built ever again within our borders.
Although the first camps for border crossers have been built, and are now filling up with innocent children, we have a chance to ensure history does not repeat itself in full, to demonstrate that we have learned from our past and to stand firmly against our worse natures. The internment happened because of fear and hatred, but also because of a failure of political leadership. In 1941, there were few politicians who dared stand up to the internment order. I am hopeful that today there will, should be, must be, far more people who speak up, both among our leaders and the public, and that the future writes the history of our resistance — not, yet again, of our compliance.