These detentions seem to be a repeat of the Japanese American internment camps – an ugly part of US history
29 June 2015
As Japanese Americans whose relatives were imprisoned as “national security threats” during World War II, we were shocked to learn that the Obama administration is contracting with private prison companies to imprison thousands of mothers and children from Central America in detention camps. This, after these families fled some of the most violent countries in the world to apply for asylum in the United States.
After visiting one of these family detention facilities, a descendant of incarcerated Japanese Americans described the place as feeling like “an updated version” of the World War II prison camps. The Japanese American Citizens League has stated that the organization is “deeply troubled by the chilling similarities between the confinement of women and children in places such as Dilley and Karnes, and the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans at places such as Manzanar, Heart Mountain and Tule Lake.”
We too have been struck by the many similarities between the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II and the detention of Central American families today without any hearing or right to counsel, and how closely these detentions seem to be repeating an ugly part of US history which hit especially close to the bone for us, the daughter and friend of Fred Korematsu.
In 1942, the 23-year-old Californian defied post Pearl Harbor presidential orders to surrender for “evacuation and internment” just because he was Japanese American. Arrested by the government and then convicted for failing to obey the military orders aimed at people of Japanese descent, Korematsu appealed to the US supreme court, positing the unconstitutionality of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. He lost his case, Korematsu v United States, and remained imprisoned until the end of the war.
He would be horrified if he saw that the Obama administration is locking up Central American mothers and children in detention camps, also in the name of national security.
It took 40 years after Korematsu’s Supreme Court loss before a federal court set aside his conviction. That court found that the government’s national security concerns about Japanese American loyalty were based on a fabricated record, replete with the suppression, alteration and destruction of evidence, which the government’s own attorneys admitted. Japanese Americans were never a threat, and their mass exclusion and imprisonment was unnecessary and cruel.
The Central American mothers and children, detained under a policy written in a similar atmosphere of hysteria, should not have to wait 40 years for justice.
And while they wait, the families suffer sadly familiar consequences. A study of Japanese Americans found that the suicide rate in the camps was double the national average and that the survivors suffered long-term health consequences that included psychological anguish, increased rates of cardiovascular disease and increased rates of premature death. Similarly, medical and mental health experts have criticized the detention of Central American families as detrimental to child development, psychological health and family wellbeing. Suicide is also a serious concern: in early June, a teen mother in a Texas family detention facility walked into a bathroom and slit her wrist in an attempt to kill herself.
The spurious justifications given for detaining the Central American families – and the conditions in which they are held – are a modern echo of the similarly unjustified mass incarceration of Japanese American families. These family detention facilities replicate the denial of privacy and the infliction of trauma that characterized one of the most shameful episodes in US history.
Fred Korematsu helped teach us that we must do everything possible to ensure that our government never again locks up innocent families in the name of national security. In that spirit, we call upon the president to end the detention of Central American families seeking refuge and protection.