World War II-Era Internment Camps for Japanese-Americans Cited as Legal Precedent for Muslim Registry

Newly arrived Japanese prisoners line up outside of the mess hall at a Japanese internent camp in San Bruno, California, on April 29, 1942. (Photo: Executive Office of the President of the United States)Newly arrived Japanese prisoners line up outside of the mess hall at a Japanese internent camp in San Bruno, California, on April 29, 1942. (Photo: Executive Office of the President of the United States)

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The names, and histories, of people being tapped for senior level positions in the Trump administration are fueling concern that the hardline rhetoric aimed at immigrants, Muslims and refugees during the campaign may soon turn into policy.

Earlier last week, a former fundraiser for the Trump campaign cited the World War II era internment of Japanese-Americans as a legal precedent for a registry of Muslim immigrants. Trump’s communication director Jason Miller walked back the remark Thursday, saying that Trump has not advocated for a registry based solely on religion, pointed to a years-long tracking program in place under then-presidents Bush and Obama — and will roll-out his own so-called “vetting program” after he’s inaugurated. The NSEERS tracking program, which targeted immigrants from Muslim-majority nations, was suspended indefinitely in 2011. FSRN’s Nell Abram spoke with Tom Ikeda, Executive Director of Densho, an organization committed to preserving the history of US’s incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

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Nell Abram: A spokesperson for a pro-Trump political action committee went on national television Wednesday and cited the internment of Japanese-Americans as legal precedent for re-establishing a registry of Muslim immigrants in the country. Why should that set off alarm bells?

Tom Ikeda: When we think back to what happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II, in the climate of fear and hate — so much of what we’re feeling now — a vulnerable community was targeted and their rights stripped, and they were placed in concentration camps in the United States. What we have now learned is that the government, through the opaqueness of national security, knew that Japanese-Americans weren’t a military threat, and yet they went ahead with this. They ended up apologizing and admitting a mistake. So the alarms should be going off in terms of a similar mistake happening again today.

Is the legal basis for the internment still on the books or was it overturned?

During World War II, there was a case — Fred Korematsu — challenging the government. And the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against Fred, saying that the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, the Executive Order 9066, was legal and constitutional. That order, or conviction, was later vacated in the 1980s at the Federal Court of Appeals, stating that, through the writ of coram nobis, which is an unusual writ stating that the government had gross negligence. And what happened was, evidence was withheld from the Supreme Court, intelligence reports showing that Japanese-Americans were as loyal as any other segment in the population. So, critical information was withheld from the Supreme Court and, because of that, Fred Korematsu’s conviction was vacated. If you talk to legal scholars, they would say the Supreme Court ruling back in the 1940s has no legs, because after the Federal Court of Appeals vacated the conviction, the government chose not to bring it back to the Supreme Court so that it could be overturned at the Supreme Court level.

Can you briefly explain how larger American society in the 1940s came to accept the confiscation of property and detention of an entire segment of the population? Do you see those same rationales emerging again?

You know, I do. In a climate of fear and hate, it really silences the majority. We are led to believe that a certain population is dangerous or suspicious, and with that, people start doubting what it is to be an American. They start questioning and they become silent. That’s what happened to Japanese-Americans, even though they were loyal Americans, did nothing wrong, they were targeted as being dangerous and the rest of America allowed that to happen. So we have to be vigilant that this doesn’t happen again, that — I’m reminded of the poem Niemoller made during World War II in terms of, “First they came for the socialists and I did not speak up, because I wasn’t a socialist. And then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak up, because I was not a trade unionists. And then they came for the Jews and I did not speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. And then, when they came for me, there was no one left to speak up for me.” And I feel the same thing could happen in our country today, where certain groups are singled out and then they are attacked, and then they’re isolated, and then they’re removed. And no one says anything. And we have to speak up now, so that it doesn’t happen again.

Tom Ikeda, your organization, Densho, is calling on people to be “upstanders not bystanders.” What does that mean?

When we talk about being an “upstander,” when you see something happening that doesn’t seem right, you speak up. First you have to be safe; we always say, “Don’t put yourself into a dangerous situation,” but when you do see something and you’re able to, you speak up, because it does make a difference. In particular, I think white people need to really speak up. So often, it’s communities of color that are speaking out and challenging the status quo in terms of where racism and other things exist. I think it’s important that all Americans speak up, and it doesn’t just become a thing that people of color have to do. Get involved, talk with people, let your congressmen and others know how you feel. Now’s the time for us to really be out there talking.

What other parallels do you see between the political and social climate today in the United States, and that during World War II?

We have to pay attention. I think when you think of what’s happened historically — and I know a lot about the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II — it happens in little steps. What we saw was it oftentimes starts with words, the rhetoric; the press, the media, politicians will start saying things about a particular segment in our population, as being dangerous, suspicious. And those words then lead to actions. In the case today, we’re hearing words about possible registering Muslim immigrants. What you do is you get this gradual chain of events that happens, step after step, that by themselves may seem okay, but it’s part of this slide that we’re going into. The parallels that I see happening today, I’m starting to see that same slide happening, and we have to pay attention to that.