Critics oppose Trump’s plan for Arkansas detention site

Cemetery at the former Rohwer, Arkansas concentration camp. courtesy of Vivienne Schiffer

Three prominent natives of Arkansas expressed strong opposition to a plan by the Trump administration to study two sites in Arkansas for development as temporary facilities to imprison children of undocumented immigrants and refugees who were arrested and detained by immigration and border agents.

One site is the Little Rock Air Force Base and the other is in Kelso, according to Arkansas state Rep. Mark McElroy. The Kelso parcel being considered as a potential detention facility for unaccompanied minors is adjacent to the former Rohwer concentration camp in southeast Arkansas, where the United States government incarcerated 8,000 Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1945.

Rohwer is Hallowed Ground
Vivienne Schiffer, who made the film “Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration,” said in a telephone interview that she is “deeply opposed” to the administration’s plan to look for sites in Arkansas to imprison children who were taken away from their immigrant parents or from asylum-seeking refugee parents from neighboring Central America.

Schiffer, a native of Rohwer who now lives in Houston, asked, “Why cart these poor children all the way to Arkansas with the attendant logistical difficulty and transportation costs just to put them in tents on the site of the Rohwer incarceration camp? Surely, there are many parcels of land that the federal government owns in the state of Arkansas and elsewhere which would be suitable for a detention facility.

“To me, the Rohwer site is hallowed ground,” she exclaimed. “It’s a symbol of the suffering caused by the denial of civil rights of an entire group of people — many of whom were American citizens — based entirely on their race. It’s a symbol, and therefore to even propose that something like this occur on that site, or even near that site, is deeply insulting.”

Schiffer thinks it’s “too much of a coincidence” to place the detention facility next to Rohwer. “Is there a message to it? … With all of the available sites, why Rohwer? Why do this again in a place that is the symbol of what we should have learned decades ago?”

Everyone the filmmaker has talked to and heard from in Arkansas “is deeply opposed to this,” she said. “I believe the people of the area where Kelso and Rohwer are located, despite their varying politics … are sympathetic to what happened at Rohwer in the 1940s and would not want to see that site to be desecrated in such a way.”

President Donald Trump’s extreme policy of imprisoning children is “dreadful,” Schiffer said. “I think it’s punitive in nature, I think it’s an example of this president who leads by hard-ball negotiations, not by leadership. Then he turns it around and blames Democrats, and his supporters believe this. I think he’s a demagogue, who’ll say and do anything … I don’t think he has an ideology, I don’t think he’s smart enough.”

Absolutely Ridiculous
Richard Yada, who was featured in Schiffer’s film, was born in 1943 at the Rohwer camp where his parents from California were incarcerated. He said on the phone from his home in Little Rock that he thinks building a detention center for unaccompanied minors in Arkansas is “a ridiculous idea.”

“No place is a good place to imprison children,” said Yada.

Having a detention center in Kelso is “as bad an idea as possible as far as location is concerned,” he added. “It adjoins the former Rohwer relocation camp site. That’s 240 acres you’re looking at and it was formerly a fish farm. It’s made up of clay, so when it rains it’s going to stick to your feet, and it doesn’t drain well. So when it happens to rain, you’re going to be knee deep in water, and when it drains you’re going to be knee deep in mud. They’re talking about putting a tent city there? There’s an insect problem, mainly mosquitoes, in the middle of rice-farming country. The mosquitoes will be terrible.”

They’ll have to bring in a lot of gravel to fill in the foundation, Yada continued. “There’s no gravel in southeast Arkansas, so they’ll have to truck it in from Little Rock, which is extremely costly — probably $1,000 for a load of gravel — and they would have to have hundreds of truckloads. They would need a new sewer system, a new electrical system, a new water system and security. So the location is absolutely ridiculous.

“They say the Kelso location is only a temporary site,” Yada said. “There’s going to be a lot of money spent on a temporary site, and once they’re done, there will be no other use for it and it’ll have to be torn down. Can’t build any hotel, shopping centers or anything like that.”

The closest airport to Kelso is 100 miles and there’s no train station adjacent to it, he added. “There’s train service to McGehee, which is another 10 miles away. I don’t even know why the federal government considered something for Kelso, unless they’re connected to it.”

That’s Not America
McElroy, a Democratic state representative, speaking on the telephone, stated that the potential detention center is “right across the street from my house. I can see it. If they continue with the plan, I would be able to hear the children crying at night in those tents.”

He is opposed to having the detention center in Kelso. McElroy declared, “Some of the property was part of the Rohwer Japanese American relocation camp … We haven’t learned anything from history. We locked up 8,000 people here because they didn’t look like us. Now on the same property, they’re going to do the same thing.”

“These are unaccompanied minors, they’re just children,” he stated. “All they’re guilty of is that they want to have better lives, their parents want them to have better lives. That’s what all of us are born with, that desire.”

The Trump administration says they’re conservative, that they want to save money for the taxpayers, McElroy noted. “But they’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars and eventually they’re going to let them go home anyway. I don’t understand that. You’re going to build a concentration camp to keep them here … You are going to have to feed them. It makes no sense financially.”

With the mosquitoes and the heat and humidity in southeast Arkansas, he exclaimed, “the people on death row in Arkansas are going to have better facilities than the detention camp for children they want to put in here … We’re doing this to our neighbors’ children?

“That’s not America, that’s not the way we want the world to see us,” McElroy stressed. “We’re the America that goes to the aid of our neighbors when they have earthquakes or hurricanes or cataclysms.”

Profoundly Disturbing
New York attorney Carl Takei offered his analysis via e-mail of the “zero tolerance” policy put forward by Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to imprison undocumented immigrants — adults and children — and the administration’s preventing Latin American refugees from seeking asylum in the U.S.

“The Trump administration is setting up a false choice between family separation and family imprisonment,” stated Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The government always has the option of releasing families from detention together, which it should absolutely do in case of asylum seekers who have passed credible fear interviews and pose no flight risk. These asylum seekers are seeking refuge from persecution and horrific violence — we should abide by our obligations under international law to provide them safety and fair treatment.”

The Trump administration seeks to blame the Flores settlement for its family separation policy. However, the Flores settlement was created in 1997 to benefit children and protect them against unnecessary detention in inappropriate conditions, Takei argued. “In no way does it require the government to separate children from their parents. The Trump administration is responsible for creating this crisis.”

Criticizing Trump’s policy that has taken 2,300 Latino immigrant and refugee children from their parents and imprisoned countless others in detention centers, the ACLU attorney stated,

“Children don’t belong in jail at all, even with their parents, under any circumstances. As a Japanese American whose family was incarcerated during World War II, I find it profoundly disturbing that the Trump administration is developing plans to warehouse tens of thousands of children and families in detention centers.”

He pointed out that America needs to “learn from the darkest chapters of our national history, not inflict the same trauma on a new generation of children and families.”

Trump’s recent order to have all undocumented immigrants apprehended by authorities to be deported without any court hearings is both illegal and unconstitutional, Takei added. “Any official who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws should disavow (Trump’s order) unequivocally.”

His colleagues in the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project are suing to immediately reunite thousands of children with their parents and seeking an injunction to stop future separations, Takei announced.

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