Japanese Americans gather in Texas to protest family detention at border


CRYSTAL CITY, Texas — More than 60 people from across the United States participated in a historical pilgrimage to Texas from March 29 to April 1 that included a memorial service at the former World War II Crystal City Department of Justice camp, a protest rally at the Dilley Detention Center, a meeting with Texas legislatures and a visit to a sanctuary church.

The event attracted press coverage from all over the country, as well as from Japan.

One immediate outcome of the pilgrimage resulted in the ad hoc Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee being invited to the San Francisco Mayor’s Immigrant Rights Commission for a meeting.

Former inmates of the Crystal City Department of Justice detention site during World War II at a protest of present-day family detention centers in Dilley, Texas. Left to right: Kaz Naganuma, James Arima, Joe Ozaki, Hiroshi Shimizu, Hiroshi Fukuda and Satsuki Ina.
photo by Martha Nakagawa

Satsuki Ina, a former Tule Lake and Crystal City incarceree who spearheaded what she referred to as “a small but mighty committee,” said the inspiration for this pilgrimage started about four years ago when she was contacted by Carl Takei, a Yonsei attorney with the ACLU whose grandparents had been imprisoned at the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

Takei had been so bothered by what he witnessed at the Karnes County Residential Center, that he had asked Ina to join him for a visit and requested her opinion, as a psychotherapist, of the sort of trauma the children were being exposed to.

After Ina walked through the Karnes detention center, she concluded: “We’ve got to take these prisons down. They’re inhumane, and they need to be taken down.”

Since then, Ina has returned a few more times to Texas and an ad hoc Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee was formed to organize a combined memorial service at the former World War II DOJ camp at Crystal City and to hold a peaceful protest rally at the Dilley detention center, a few miles from Crystal City, to oppose the indefinite imprisonment of families with minors and the separation of children from their parents.

Assisting the Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee was Grassroots Leadership, an Austin, Texas-based organization that works to reform immigration and criminal justice policies and works with those impacted by detention and deportation.

Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership executive director, felt the presence of the Japanese American community, six of whom were Crystal City survivors, was “incredibly powerful, and it’s going to be heard by people who are inside (Dilley),” he said.

According to Libal, the Dilley Detention Center is the largest immigration detention center in the U.S. with 2,400 beds for women and children.

“Children as young as babies have been detained there as recently as the last few weeks,” said Libal. “Pregnant detainees are something we have seen recently, including pregnant girls under the age of 18, who continue to be detained.”

Libal added that these immigration detention centers were being run by for-profit corporations.

“This facility is operated by the world’s largest for-profit prison corporation, which is called Corrections Corp of America (rebranded CoreCivic), that signed a billion dollar contract to operate it so the detention of immigrant families is both a moral abomination and very big business,” said Libal.

He, like those on the pilgrimage, felt that it was time to shut down detention centers.

Tsuru For Solidarity
About two weeks before the pilgrimage, Mike Ishii spearheaded a campaign to have 10,000 folded cranes (tsuru) sent to the Grassroots Leadership office to be used at the protest rally as a symbol of solidarity.

More than 25,000 tsuru appeared at the Grassroots Leadership office, with many more boxes still being delivered. As of the pilgrimage, more than 150 boxes of tsuru had been delivered to Grassroots Leadership but that number could top 200 boxes.

The folded cranes came from all across the U.S. and Japan, including some from the San Quentin State Prison.

Kathy Kojimoto said Jun Hamamoto was responsible for the tsuru from San Quentin prison. “Jun teaches a class at San Quentin,” said Kojimoto. “They did this during their free time or so-called rec time to make these cranes specifically for this event.”

TSURU IN SOLIDARITY — Joe Ozaki, a former Crystal City detainee, puts a strand of paper cranes on the Dilley detention center in solidarity

Crystal City Site Tour
Nancy Ukai, a descendant of a Topaz (Central Utah) War Relocation Authority concentration camp, spearheaded the program at the former Crystal City Department of Justice camp where Japanese Americans, Japanese Latin Americans, German Americans and German Costa Ricans were incarcerated during World War II.

Grace Shimizu, who has been heading the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and Campaign for Justice for decades, gave a brief background on Crystal City.

“We’re going to a set of camps that usually people don’t really know about in the general society, but even within the Japanese American community, we don’t know that much about,” she said. “And for a time, people here were seen as having stigma, that there must’ve been something wrong with them because they were picked up first.

“And it’s only because of hard work that our community has done to uncover our own history that we’ve begun to see the diversity of the experiences that our community went through and to see how complex the whole process was that the government was trying to do when it identified the people here as enemy aliens.”

During the war, the Crystal City DOJ camp imprisoned more than 2,200 people of Japanese ancestry from 13 Latin American countries to be used in hostage exchanges between the U.S. and Japan.

In addition, the U.S. government sent Japanese American mothers and their children incarcerated in WRA camps to Crystal City to be reunited with their husbands/fathers, who had been detained at other DOJ camps.

On the bus ride to Crystal City, Kenya Gillespie shared a short Crystal City documentary film he made as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he now teaches. Gillespie grew up in Kansas with a father who is of Scottish descent and a post-war immigrant mother from Japan.

“I had no idea that something like this had existed in Texas,” said Gillespie. “And when I visited the Crystal City site, I thought I have to do a documentary on this subject.”

Several Crystal City elected officials welcomed the pilgrims at Crystal City, including Imelda Salinas, superintendent of the Crystal City Independent School District; Joel Barajas, Crystal City Mayor Pro-Tem; and Councilwoman Michelle Ruiz.

In addressing the pilgrims, Ruiz said, “You’re part of history here so you’re a part of Crystal City.”

Roberto Velasquez, who has worked for the ISD for 42 years, led a short tour of the site, which he also does for former German and Costa Rican German incarcerees who visit the site.

Velasquez, the son of migrant workers, attended the segregated school on the former Crystal City DOJ site, in the same building as those who had been incarcerated during World War II.

The school building was torn down during the 1960s, but Velasquez said that in 1982, he rummaged through some construction rubbish and found an old desk.

At lunch at the Sterling H. Fly Junior High School, Velasquez was able to arrange students to come out on a Saturday to greet the pilgrims. La Bande Folklorico performed traditional Mexican dances during the meal.

Several volunteer keepers of history at Crystal City turned out to the luncheon. Among them was Turi Gonzales, who presented a bag of what looked like rocks to Crystal City survivors.

“These are remnants from the swimming pool,” Gonzales said. “I knew they were important. I’ve been holding onto them for 20 years.”
Jose Casares, the town historian, has been researching birth, death and cemetery records of the Japanese between 1943 and 1947 in Zavala County where Crystal City is located.

Casares said his parents used to interact with the Crystal City incarcerees by throwing tortillas over the fence and rolling oranges through the fencing.

Fe Felix, the former librarian at the Crystal City school, said when the library was closed about 10 years ago, she tried to save as many historical documents as possible but many had been thrown out.

Others who came out to support the pilgrimage program included Francis Snavely, mother of Toni Osumi, who came out from Idaho. She felt this was part of her history as well since her first husband had been incarcerated at Poston (Colorado River) and the Manzanar WRA camps. She is also Jewish, and lost family in the Holocaust.

“So my sons have both sides of their family affected so certainly there is an awareness,” said Snavely.

Diana Palacios turned out for the gathering in hopes of reuniting with Sumi Shimatsu, a former Crystal City detainee who regularly published the Crystal City Chatter newsletter. Palacios’ relationship with former Crystal City incarcerees went back to the 1990s when she had been the city manager and helped apply for grant money for the plaques.

“One thing I hate is injustice,” said Palacios. “But I’m saddened by the condition of our country today … it breaks my heart to see what is happening.”

Memorial Service
The memorial service was held at the former camp swimming pool site where two Japanese Peruvian girls had drowned in 1944.

Kaz Naganuma, whose family had been taken away from Peru, said his older sisters knew and witnessed the two Japanese Peruvian girls drowning in the pool.

“So tragic,” said Naganuma.

His family did not get out of Crystal City until 1947, two years after the war had ended. Since they had no friends or families in the U.S., Hiroshi Fukuda’s father, the Rev. Yoshiaki Fukuda of the Konko Church of San Francisco, sponsored the Naganuma family, and civil rights attorney Wayne Collins stopped their deportation. However, Naganuma said life after camp was worse since they had no jobs and could not speak English.

Hiroshi Fukuda’s family, like Naganuma’s family, were not released from Crystal City until 1947. However, they were Japanese Americans, who had been living in Northern California before the war. His father had been arrested on the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, while he was presenting a sermon at the San Jose Konko Church.

“Three FBI agents came and arrested him,” said Fukuda. “I was too young, but my older brother told me that he was sort of shocked, seeing these people arresting my father. He spent most of his time in what’s known as the Justice camps instead of the War Relocation Authority camps. We were separated for three or four years and reunited at Crystal City.”

At the memorial service, Joe Ozaki’s family performed taiko. Nancy Ozaki Tsujimoto, Joe’s

shot and killed for doing that,” said Taniwaki.

Taniwaki felt that her childhood incarceration contributed to her politicization later in life. “For about 30 years now, I’ve produced a radio show at KGNU in Boulder, Colo. and have dealt with migrants fleeing oppression from Central and South America so this is very close to my heart.”

While most Americans view undocumented immigrants as a Latino issue, J. Kim, an undocumented immigrant of Korean descent, spoke out to say it affected Asian Americans as well.

“I’m a DACA recipient,” said Kim. “I’m undocumented but I’m not afraid. I just want to say the undocumented issue is not only a Latinx issue or a black issue. It’s also an Asian American issue. There’s more than a million undocumented Asian Americans in this country, and they’re always living in fear of deportation.

Kim said last year the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium started a “Citizenship for All” campaign, which would provide a pathway to citizenship to all people living in the U.S., including to undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Several NAKASEC members were collecting signatures for this campaign.

Karina Alvarez, head of the Laredo Immigrant Alliance, is also a DACA recipient. “I found light in people who shared the same ideals,” said Alvarez. “We need to fight back policies like SB 4 that terrorizes our community.”

Senate Bill 4, which passed in May 2017, is similar to Senate Bill 1070 passed in Arizona. This Texas “Show Me Your Papers” bill allows law enforcement officers to ask about the immigration status of anyone they lawfully detain, and this provision extends to college campus police. This law also allows individuals to initiate an investigation into sanctuary cities.

Sean Miura, along with Becca Asari and Linda Morris, led the group in a human mic exchange where they delivered a phrase and supporters repeated them, thus amplifying the voices.

Miura said he wanted to witness the detention camps in person. “We talk about these detention centers in the abstract,” said Miura. “We talk about separation of families as a concept, and I think, for a number of reasons, we choose not to ground it in reality. But these are actual people being impacted in devastating ways that are going to have a generational impact and there are implications for not only for themselves but for the entire country and the world.”

Just before Jenni Kuida arrived to the rally, she confirmed with her mother over the phone that her grandparents had been reunited at Crystal City and that one of her mother’s sisters had died there. “My mom’s oldest sister passed away two days after they got here. She had a brain tumor but my grandfather was able to see her before she passed away.

Libal said this rally was the most moving he’d been involved with. “I think it’s incredibly important to be drawing these connections. I’m reading a book on Crystal City and the similarities between the facility behind us and the one just down the road in Crystal City, are overwhelming,” said Libal. “This is the nation’s largest immigration detention center. It has 2,400 children and mothers detained here today, including babies. This facility is a moral outrage.”

Linda Morris, from New York, does not have a Crystal City connection but her mother’s family was imprisoned at the Jerome and Rohwer concentration camps during the war.

“Over the past couple of years, my mom and I have been talking more about her family’s experience so any chance that I have to be involved in building a community with other Japanese Americans, who have that shared experience, is important to me,” said Morris. “Also addressing the issue that our country is currently going through with immigration is really important so that’s why I came.”

Morris said her father is a member of the Creek tribe from Alabama. “My parents have different experiences but there are similarities in terms of facing discrimination in this country and also forced removal.”

Stacy Kono of Berkeley, whose father was in Tule Lake, Jerome and Rohwer and whose mother was in Tule Lake, talked about how inspiring the protest rally was. “I want to share about how proud I am to be a Japanese American, how proud I am for all of us for standing up in this moment and sharing our stories and our family’s stories in a time when our country is engaged in human rights violations against people who are simply seeking to survive and escape conditions that our government has contributed to.”

Holly Yasui, the daughter of Minoru Yasui, who had challenged the constitutionality of the curfew during World War II, sent a bilingual letter to the children detained at Dilley. Robin Yasui read the letter in English and Rebecca Fong read the Spanish version.

The letter to the children read in part, “We want to support you as some groups supported us, Japanese Americans, during the war when we needed it most. We want our country to live up to its principles of justice and democratic ideals that attracted our ancestors to this land.”

One World Taiko and Soh Taiko performed, and the protesters sang “De Colores,” a folk song that was commonly sung during the United Farm Workers’ rallies, followed by the Japanese folk song, “Kutsu Ga Naru.”

A larger pilgrimage to Crystal City is being planned for November.

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