Nikkei WWII experience parallels Latino immigrants’ plight today


LOS ANGELES — The parallels between Japanese Americans who were persecuted during World War II and today’s Latino immigrants whose human rights are also being violated by the United States government, was the focus of this year’s Day of Remembrance program, held Feb. 16, at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

The annual Day of Remembrance commemorates President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, which resulted in the forced removal of all Nikkei from the West Coast and the incarceration of more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in American concentration camps and other confinement sites during World War II.

“Behind Barbed Wire: Keeping Children & Families Safe,” the theme for this year’s Day of Remembrance program, refers to the government’s “inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers at our southern border as children were forcibly separated from their parents,” stated Richard Katsuda, co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, an event co-sponsor. “The cruel government treatment brought back terrible memories of how Japanese Americans were treated during World War II.”

Action Based on Lies
Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of JANM, welcomed the large crowd of 457 to the program by stating, “Today, we mark the 77th anniversary of the Executive Order 9066 in the face of a ‘national emergency’ barely 24 hours old. Each order is an example of executive action that is based on false and misleading information. The incarceration was based on a deliberate lie … that people of Japanese ancestry were a threat to national security, a lie that was skewed by bigotry and prejudice … Asylum-seekers, migrants and refugees are no more a threat to national security than your families were in 1942.”

Pointing to the stark similarities between the wartime persecution of Nikkei and the current attack on non-white immigrants, Burroughs emphasized, “A climate of naked racism, a climate of white supremacy, a false national security threat that incarcerated over 120,000 people 77 years ago … today is the impetus for a wall that will close our southern borders to people fleeing violence and persecution.”

The real crime is the assault on the right to asylum, the JANM chief declared. “It’s a fundamental given right that’s upheld in the laws of our country that states very clearly that people have the right to seek asylum from violence and persecution. Instead of affording them the protection that our law and international law require, they’ve been demonized and their lives and safety used as pawns in a cynical game. The real crisis is the separation of children and their families at the border. The real crime is the incarceration of between 14,000 and 16,000 children in detention centers across the country.”

“Our job is to make sure that there is no mistaking the tragic and dire consequences of unfitness and irresponsible and unlawful executive action,” she declared. “This is a community that understands better than most and I’m so proud that we’ve all chosen to make a stand.”

Brian Niiya, the content editor for Densho (a nonprofit organization that documents Nikkei history pertaining to the WWII incarceration) and editor of the “Encyclopedia of Japanese History,” led a panel discussion examining similarities between the Japanese American incarceration and present-day attack on immigrants.

The Japanese immigrants, who started coming here in the late 1800s, “were a racially distinct population that spoke a different language, they were easy targets, scapegoats for nativists and opportunistic politicians that portrayed them as dangerous, nefarious, inscrutable,” Niiya stated. “Laws were soon passed restricting their immigration, prohibiting them from buying land, or becoming naturalized citizens.”

Niiya compared the persecu tion of Japanese Americans during World War II, to the current targeting of Central American refugees and asylum-seekers. “It’s hard not to think of the enemy alien roundup of the Issei, the separation of families–my mom as a 13-year-old wound up in Crystal City, Texas–and one-third of the inmate population in camps were children.”
He criticized the Trump administration’s persecution of refugees and asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border, with children forcibly separated from their parents and families torn apart, as a “cruel government campaign against these mostly non-white people from Central America. It brought back terrible memories of how Japanese Americans were treated during World War II.”

Abhorrent History
Panel member Reshma Shamasunder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who lives near the former La Tuna Detention Center where many Japanese aliens were held during World War II, remarked, “As I pass it almost every day, I’m continuously reminded of our country’s abhorrent history, and remain reminded as I hear on the news about the treatment of immigrants … The human rights crisis at the border is among the most horrific of what we’re seeing and really ripples across the immigrant communities.”

According to Shamasunder, almost 40 percent of the Asian American population is foreign-born. About 16,000 Asian Pacific Islanders are DACA recipients, and APIs comprise 11 percent of the undocumented population. Eighty-two percent of legal immigration from Asia was family-based in 2016, and Asians received 41 percent of the worldwide family immigration visas and are most likely to be caught up in the visa backlog.

“The Trump administration is attacking our family immigration system, making proposals … that are intended to dramatically cut family immigration,” she decried. “That’s really what the Trump administration’s immigration policies are about — to target the most vulnerable, the poorest, non-white immigrants.”

The Temporary Protected Status program is also targeted by the Trump administration, she warned. The end of that program, in which people from certain countries in Asia, Central America, the Caribbean and Africa are protected from deportation, would result in many people having to leave after years or decades in this country.

The Trump administration’s designation of a national emergency at our southern border in order to secure his border wall funding has “obviously been a major temper tantrum by our president at not being able to get funding over the past couple of years for the wall — it’s not something that the country wants.”

Leticia Bustamante, another panelist and Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals recipient, is an undocumented immigrant who at age 5 came to this country from Mexico with her family legally and then overstayed their tourist visa. “The reason my dad came to the United States to work … was to make some money and go back to Mexico. But once he got here, he realized that this was a better place for his family and the best thing for us to do as a family was to move here.”

A recent UCLA graduate, Bustamante said, “I feel I’ve been very fortunate. It all stems from the immigrant youth movement that began as a result of Congress being unable to pass the Dream Act. If it wasn’t for those folks … I wouldn’t be here right now because I wouldn’t have DACA. DACA gives 800,000 youths the ability to have a work permit; but what about everybody else? What about my parents? The government is going to increase funding for ICE and for the Border Patrol. You’re going to see more raids and maybe my parents won’t come home one day. That’s not a fair trade-off.”

The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians released a report which determined that the decision to incarcerate people was based on race prejudice, wartime hysteria and the failure of political leadership, Bustamante commented. “Does it sound familiar to anybody? Are we going through this again? I think it’s very important to remind folks this happened before, and it’s literally happening again, this time to a different group of immigrants.”

Asylum Seekers Detained
Lisa Okamoto, a lawyer with the Immigrant Defenders Law Center who represents unaccompanied children, stated, “There has been a surge in the number of unaccompanied minors, children — 50,000 in one year–who are coming here by themselves without parents or a legal guardian, fleeing violence from Central America and some from Mexico.”

In the last two years, the rise in detention has skyrocketed, she disclosed. “Those who are here seeking asylum and have no criminal background whatsoever, even in their home countries or here, are likely to be detained … All those people who came to the border to seek asylum were subsequently detained and children were separated from parents, because the law says children can’t be detained.”

The immigrant detention centers got flooded so the federal government decided to place approximately 1,000 people, about half of them asylum-seekers, into Victorville Federal Prison, all held without access to an attorney, an immigration proceeding, or an interpreter, Okamoto said. “All those people are now out of Victorville, but many are now in other detention centers, but at least they have access to immigration court.”

Okamoto thinks the Japanese American community has a unique history, “but we also currently have privilege as a people. I believe that as Japanese Americans, we should recognize that privilege and utilize it” by donating money to support the beleaguered immigrants.

Amritpal Kaur, another panel member and DACA recipient, declared, “If you’re not very politically active, the best thing that you can do is to definitely know who is representing you because these are the people that you should be calling or sending e-mails to or sending letters to, asking everyone around you to be sending stuff to them. And if you are part of an organization or you go to a university like myself, mobilize from the ground up, get all the people close to you like family members or friends, tell them what’s going on, or … ask a friend who is involved in an organization.”

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The 2024 Films of Remembrance sheds light on the forced removal and incarceration of the Japanese American community into American concentration camps during World War II.