Korematsu case re-enactment targets Trump’s anti-immigration policy

NEW YORK — A re-enactment in New York of Korematsu v. United States, a 1944 Supreme Court case that upheld the wartime incarceration of some 120,000 Japanese Americans, was recently staged with a new ending after the court overruled the notorious decision last June.

The public event, held Jan. 30 to mark the centennial birthday of the late Japanese American activist Fred Korematsu, drew a crowd of roughly 150 to watch lawyers and judges perform the case that continues to resonate amid President Donald Trump’s harsh policies against Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border.

Taking the role of Chief Justice John Roberts, legal analyst Albert Fox Cahn read the June 2018 rebuke of the 1944 ruling for its support of the “morally repugnant” executive order by which Americans of Japanese ancestry had been detained in remote U.S. camps during World War II.

“Korematsu was wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and — to be clear — ‘has no place in law under the Constitution’,” Cahn read from the court’s majority opinion.

Although the court’s stance on Korematsu might otherwise have been welcomed by the Japanese American community, it came as part of a heavily criticized ruling that upheld Trump’s ban on U.S. entry by citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries, a measure in which many see a repeat of discrimination by executive fiat.
During the panel discussion at the gathering, Rose Cuison Villazor, a professor of law at Rutgers University, criticized the court for allowing law based on animus toward a particular group to remain intact.

“(Korematsu) may have been overruled, but we still have this pernicious opinion that continues to exclude on the basis of race on our borders and also within our borders,” she said.
Mike Ishii, 53, co-chair of the New York Day of Remembrance Committee, one of the event organizers, and a descendant of Japanese Americans imprisoned in wartime camps, expressed similar frustration.

“The hypocrisy of overturning Korematsu and then upholding that decision (the travel ban) all in one stroke — it is not only insulting but really weakens the Constitution,” Ishii told Kyodo News.

The committee, formed over 30 years ago during the successful grassroots movement for Japanese American reparations, has become increasingly active in the city, organizing educational art exhibits and community discussions in the age of Trump.

“Men early on (in World War II-era incarceration) were taken away to Department of Justice camps and separated from their families — this is a next variation … taking children away from their families,” Ishii said, comparing U.S. government practices in the 1940s to Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy by which thousands of migrant children have been detained without their parents.

U.S. judge Denny Chin, a narrator in the re-enactment, explained to the audience that the script had been put together by the Asian American Bar Association of New York and used in 11 performances, but needed to be reworked to include the Supreme Court’s 2018 opinion.

During the war, Korematsu, then 23, was arrested and charged with violating a government order after resisting relocation to a Japanese American incarceration camp.

He appealed his case to the Supreme Court in 1944 and lost in a 6-3 decision that upheld the executive order to place Japanese Americans in camps. Korematsu’s conviction was eventually overturned in 1983, and he remained an activist until his death in 2005 at the age of 86.

New York City’s Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution was adopted in 2017. So far, 10 states recognize Jan. 30 as Korematsu Day, celebrating his legacy of resisting unjust detention before he and his family were sent to the Topaz concentration camp in Utah during World War II.

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