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Survivors of Japanese internment speak out against immigrant detention

Just 20 minutes away and nearly 80 years back in history, the U.S. government attempted a similar rebranding. Beginning in 1942, more than 7,000 Japanese people, many of whom were American citizens, were forcibly removed from their homes by army troops and transferred to Puyallup, Washington and interned at a place the government called “Camp Harmony.” In reality, it was the Puyallup Assembly Center and it was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards who were instructed to shoot anyone who attempted to leave. 

Paul Tomita said that what is happening to immigrants today is just like what happened to Japanese Americans like him from 1942 to 1945. Tomita was just three years old when he and his family spent 14 months in captivity in two U.S. government internment camps. After the U.S. declared war on Japan, the Tomita family was forced from their Seattle home to Puyallup Assembly Center and then, along with 8,000 other civilians, were moved to the Minidoka prison camp in southern Idaho.

“You don’t see people with blonde hair and blue eyes in these [modern detention] camps. No, you see brown people, you see Black people. You see people of color, just like you saw when we were in camps,” Tomita said. “Just like what happened to us, you see laws and policies being put into place to discount people and their humanity. They don’t want us to work together and see these parallels, but we do.”

Executive Order, executive power

The parallels are unmistakable, going beyond the government-run internment camps and detention centers—and even beyond the targeting of specific racial and ethnic groups. The planned Feb. 23 protest will coincide with the 78th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the mass forced removal and incarceration of more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens.

The Trump administration has similarly wielded executive orders to harm communities of color. By broadening the pool of immigrants prioritized for removal, speeding up deportation proceedings, and enlisting local law enforcement to increase the deportation force, Trump’s January 2017 executive orders essentially made every immigrant present in the United States without authorization deportable.

“When I talk about what is happening under the current [Trump] regime, about the targeting of immigrant communities, I always start by talking about the January 2017 executive orders,” said Maru Mora-Villalpando, a longtime immigrants’ rights activist and community organizer based in Washington.

Mora-Villalpando is also an undocumented immigrant being targeted for deportation, but this hasn’t stopped her from speaking out. She founded NWDC Resistance, an organization focused on shutting down detention centers, ending deportations, and offering support to immigrants detained inside of NWDC. Now called La Resistencia, Mora-Villalpando’s organization is one of the primary organizers of Sunday’s action at NWDC.

“The anniversary of the executive order that allowed Japanese internment is powerful, and it’s a critical anniversary. Executive orders are the way that the president shows how they can wield power against our communities. It shows how easy it is to execute power against us and harm our communities,” she said.

Working across movements & generations

Along with La Resistencia, there are three other organizations behind Day of Remembrance, Day of Action: Tsuru for Solidarity, a nonviolent, direct action organization comprised of Japanese American social justice advocates working to end detention; Densho, a Seattle-based archive and public history organization that documents the stories of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II; and the Japanese American Citizens League, a national organization of communities affected by injustice and bigotry.

Under the Trump administration, there has been a wave of organizing around immigration that crosses movements, racial and ethnic divides, and generations. Last year, Native Americans from across the U.S. joined the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation in McAllen, Texas for a rally called Taking a Stand on Stolen Land. Prior to the protest, members of the Carrizo/Comecrudo spent months living in makeshift villages along the Rio Grande River, protesting the border wall, which will cut through their ancestral lands. Last year, a newly-formed coalition of Jewish people opposed to ICE organized their first action in New Jersey alongside movement partners Movimiento Cosecha. The New Jersey protest sparked Never Again Action, the largest ever mobilization of American Jews against the persecution of immigrants. In 2018, the African American youth-led organization Dream Defenders protested detention centers and the private prison companies behind them, successfully convincing the Florida Democratic Party to stop taking money from companies like GEO Group that profit off of mass incarceration and immigrant detention.

“When we coalesce around these issues, it scares the shit out of white Americans because they see us working together and organizing and there is nothing they can do to stop us,” said Tomita, who turns 81 next month. He previously protested at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, a site that was being considered to detain immigrant children. Fort Sill was also used during World War II as an internment camp. Before that, it was the longtime prison for Apache leader Geronimo.

‘There is an Obligation to Speak Out’

Barbara Yasui and her father Homer Yasui believe it is their responsibility to speak out against the Trump administration and its treatment of immigrant communities. Unlike Tomita and other living survivors of Japanese internment who were very young children when they were incarcerated by the U.S. government, Homer was a teenager when his family was forced into California’s Tule Lake camp, the largest internment camp, reserved for the so-called “disloyal” who would not swear allegiance to the U.S. or serve in the military.

Barbara, who is a volunteer with Densho and on the steering committee of the Seattle chapter of Tsuru for Solidarity, grew up hearing her parents talk about their family’s experience in internment camps. Tomito said many survivors simply say they don’t remember “because it hurt so bad.”

“The humiliation of being dumped in a camp because of your race is too painful. The humiliation and shame hurt too badly for most people, so they didn’t want to talk about it,” he said.

This was echoed by Homer, who said it was very unusual for Japanese American families to openly talk about what happened to them.

“I think that my wife and I did the right thing by telling our children from a very early age all about the wartime ‘evacuation’ and the rampant racism during that period. They always knew about the ‘camps,’” Homer said.

The Yasui family has a long history of—as Homer said—taking a “demonstrably visible stand for justice and equality for all people.” Barbara credits her father and her “Uncle Min” with keeping the history alive and providing a model for speaking out. When he was just 22 years old, Homer’s brother, Minoru “Min” Yasui, was one of four Japanese Americans who fought the legality of Japanese internment all the way to the Supreme Court. Minoru was punished severely for speaking out, including being placed in solitary confinement.

As a child, Barbara said she noticed that her uncle kept the nail on his pinky finger very long. When she asked him why, he said it was a way of reminding him of the time he spent in solitary confinement, when guards wouldn’t allow him to cut his fingernails or his hair.

“To varying degrees, I think many Japanese Americans are prone not to speak up. There is a Japanese proverb that says ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.’ But I know for many Japanese Americans right now, especially survivors of the camps, there is an obligation to speak out because we were placed in camps and we don’t want to keep seeing this happen to other people,” Barbara said. “My Uncle Min was a tremendous role model for me and for my dad. His example still leads us today and I’m inspired by my dad, who is still speaking out.”

Homer became involved in Tsuru for Solidarity because of his daughter, and he plans to be at Sunday’s protest. At 95 years old, he jokes that he is an “old geezer,” but that he wants to use his voice while he can.  

“[I speak out] because 78 years ago, my people were being loudly and viciously denounced as being ‘disloyal’ by the press, the U.S. government, politicians, and the American people in general. Almost nobody stood up for us,” Homer said. “Quiet Americans were the enablers that allowed the atrocity of the so-called evacuation to happen. I learned something from that. So now I am going to stand up for immigrants and people of Islamic faith who have been viciously and wrongfully attacked as being criminals, rapists, and terrorists. If I can do it, so can others.”

Tina Vasquez is Prism’s gender justice reporter. She covers issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, the fight for reproductive rights, and more. Follow her on Twitter.

Prism is a nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos. Our mission is to make visible the people, places, and issues currently underrepresented in our democracy. By amplifying the voices and leadership of people closest to the problems, Prism tells the stories no one else is telling. Follow us on Twitter @ourprisms and on Facebook.

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