In the hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the FBI swooped down on Japanese Americans on the West Coast and whisked more than 5,000 of them into a series of camps around the country. Without trial, they remained imprisoned for the duration of World War II, often because of unfounded claims of national security.
About 700 of these individuals of Japanese descent were sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, an Army base and artillery training center. Eventually, they were shuttled to centers run by the Justice Department or to join their families in the 10 camps from California to Arkansas that held 120,000 people, including two-thirds who were U.S. citizens.
Now, 77 years later, history is on the verge of repeating itself. The Trump administration plans to make Fort Sill home to another detention center, this time for Latin American asylum-seekers caught up in the administration’s border and immigration policies.
The Department of Health and Human Services chose Fort Sill from a list of three finalists, which also included Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and Fort Benning, Georgia. This is happening as President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency is being challenged in the court as unconstitutional.
Many of us are now familiar with how President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and launched the incarceration of Japanese Americans. They included my parents and their families, who were sent to a camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
Before then, however, the FBI virtually decimated the Japanese American community, taking Buddhist priests, teachers or community organizers, and depositing them in centers like Fort Sill or Fort Missoula, Montana, which held 1,250 Japanese Americans. They lived with German and Italian prisoners of war, who sometimes received more legal due process than American citizens of Japanese descent.
I find, as chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which runs an interpretive center where my parents were imprisoned as children, the reopening of Fort Sill as a detention center awakens uncomfortable memories.
I have seen how third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Japanese Americans have to cope with the multigenerational mental trauma caused when their ancestors were yanked from their homes and businesses on the West Coast and incarcerated without trial. We all feel the shame of being stigmatized by our appearance and ethnic origin.
As an attorney, I know how our government lied during World War II to argue before the Supreme Court that alleged national-security reasons justified the incarceration. We are reliving that lie with the administration’s misrepresentations about adding a question about citizenship on next year’s Census.
This is happening again with those driven by threats of death and destruction from their homes in Central and South America to find sanctuary in the United States. Too often, however, that intended sanctuary turns out to be a detention center.
There is little dispute that these new arrivals have overtaxed our immigration system along the southern border. It’s a problem that deserves a logical national solution by Congress and the president.
But we know that the administration doesn’t want to find a rational answer. Instead, it hopes to scare away immigrants by threatening them with the separation of their children.
Perhaps that should surprise no one, since our current president has referred to the new immigrants as “animals,” an echo of how politicians during World War II dehumanized Japanese Americans to make it easier to suspend their constitutional rights and imprison them without due process.
It took an act of Congress and the courage of President Ronald Reagan to apologize 31 years ago for the Japanese American incarceration. The reopening of Fort Sill as a detention center shows how that lesson has been lost.