On November 16, 2015, President Obama announced the awarding of a Medal of Freedom to Minoru Yasui in recognition of his lifelong fight for justice, including his challenge of the U.S. government’s policy of exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Two days later, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David Bowers invoked President Roosevelt’s “sequestering of Japanese” as justification for excluding Syrian refugees from his city. Then in December, Donald Trump defended his call for banning all Muslims from entering the country by saying it was no different from how Roosevelt treated Japanese Americans.
These references, far from justifying exclusion of Syrians or Muslims, are perhaps the strongest arguments we could make against discriminating against refugees and immigrants on the basis of national origin or religion.
The 1942 exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and incarceration in concentration camps in Idaho, Wyoming, California, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Arkansas is now widely considered one of the darkest chapters of U.S. history—with an even darker footnote: at the same time the U.S. government closed its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
So, what is the lesson? It was wrong in 1942, and it is wrong today.
The U.S. government itself has recognized this. In 1983, a blue-ribbon presidential Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment (CWRIC) concluded in its definitive report that it was not a question of “military necessity” as argued at the time, but that:
… these actions were carried out without adequate security reasons and … were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.
—CWRIC, Personal Justice Denied
And five years later, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided an official apology and reparations for survivors of the U.S. concentration camps.
Like the specious argument of “military necessity” made in 1942, the claim today of “national security” exigencies to justify the exclusion of Syrians and the detention and deportation of Muslims from the United States does not stand up under scrutiny. It is motivated by racial-religious prejudice, wartime-terrorism hysteria, and an extraordinary failure—or in the case of Trump, a grotesque travesty of political leadership.
Although Bowers has apologized (Trump of course never will) and says “it is not in my heart to be racist or bigoted,” … there’s the rub. How many others who support the exclusion of Syrian refugees—including 289 members of the House of Representatives who voted for the so-called SAFE Act, HR 4038—are not “racist or bigoted,” but justify their position by a deep and sincere concern about “national security”?
In January, the Senate blocked HR 4038. But in March, a new bill was introduced in the House that would essentially accomplish the same: exclude and/or surveil Muslims, especially Syrian refugees. Furthermore, HR 4731 enables states to ban resettlement of refugees, and various governors and state legislatures are scrambling to do so.
We, as a people, and our leaders must closely examine the assumptions upon which this exclusion policy is based, in order to not only learn from the past, but also to act upon those hard-learned lessons:
In 1942, entire families, elderly and infirm, children of all ages including babes in arms were excluded from the West Coast and imprisoned in concentration camps because General John DeWitt, in charge of the “Japanese problem,” said: “A Jap’s a Jap,” i.e., by nature untrustworthy.
Today we have a new version of that tautology. New Jersey governor and Presidential hopeful Chris Christie stated that even Syrian orphans under the age of 5, who have lost their families to terrorism, should not be allowed into the United Sates. And Trump proudly proclaimed he could look a Syrian child in the eye and say, “You can’t come here!” Effectively, “a Syrian’s a Syrian,” i.e. by nature a threat to national security.
In 1942, authorities insisted that among Japanese, you couldn’t “separate the sheep (the good) from the goats (the bad)” so all were excluded from the West Coast. However, white sheep were distinguishable from white goats—a few selected German and Italian aliens were incarcerated in detention centers, but their entire communities were not uprooted and imprisoned in concentration camps.
Today, opponents of Muslim immigration and refugee resettlement in the United States say they cannot be adequately screened and therefore all must be subject to regulations that essentially exclude them. Like the Japanese during World War II, Muslim “sheep” cannot be separated from Muslim “goats,” even though U.S. Immigration screening procedures, the most rigorous in the world, can make that determination for persons of other religions.
In 1942, official stigmatization exacerbated public fear and suspicion toward all persons of Japanese ancestry after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, even though there was no evidence of a single case of espionage among over 120,000 persons excluded from the West Coast. Japanese Americans were rounded up and imprisoned in spite of the fact that they had nothing to do with the militaristic empire of Japan.
Today, fear and suspicion have been directed against Muslims since the bombing of the World Trade Center, fueling rejection of Syrian refugees in particular—who are most certainly victims of terrorism—in spite of the fact that refugees are, as a group, statistically the least likely to commit crimes in the United States. Since 2001, hundreds of Muslims have been the targets of hate crimes and unwarranted, abusive detention in spite of having nothing to do with Al Qaeda or ISIS.
Perhaps the only benefit derived from the invocation of FDR’s infamous authorization of massive violations of human and civil rights during World War II is that it is has generated a reflection upon the issue of racial and religious discrimination. The Roanoke City Council, for example, roundly opposed Bowers’ statement and publicly announced that their city was “welcoming of all nationalities.”
And though more than half of the governors in the United States have declared they will not accept Syrian refugees, a number of mayors and others oppose that xenophobic stance. For example, the governor of Idaho declared his state will not accept Syrians, and the new anti-Muslim bill currently in Congress is sponsored by a representative from of Idaho, but the city of Boise has accepted more Syrian Muslim refugees than New York and Los Angeles combined.
This is how real grass-roots democracy works: people act upon what they know is right, in spite of decrees—“errors”—made by higher-up officials and politicians. During World War II, this happened in small but significant ways. The American Friends Service Committee helped young Japanese Americans to relocate to colleges outside the exclusion zone. In Europe there were brave and conscientious people who risked their lives to help Jews escape the Nazis, including Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara who hand-wrote thousands of visas to Lithuanian Jews before he left that country.
Because of our community’s history, I feel that Asian Americans, especially Japanese Americans, have a special responsibility if not a moral obligation to speak out and support our Muslim brothers and sisters. Our community’s experience during World War II and with the redress movement is a precedent for gaining an apology and reparations for Muslims who have been surveilled, imprisoned and abused by our government for months, even years, for minor immigration or other infractions when evidence linking them to the 9/11 attacks could not be found or fabricated.
As Minoru Yasui’s daughter—along with Jay Hirabayashi (on behalf of his father, Gordon) and Karen Korematsu (on behalf of her father, Fred)—I’ve signed on to amicus curiae briefs for various federal cases challenging the racial and religious profiling of Muslims by the U.S. government since 9/11—Turkmen v. Ashcroft and Hassan v. New York City; and Hedges v. Obama, on the policy of indefinite detention of persons suspected of ties to terrorism.
Min Yasui, in a speech at the University of California in 1986, the last year of his life, expounded on the duty of citizens as regards our government’s policies:
This is the United States of America, founded in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … As American citizens … we [have] the obligation … to tell our government [when] they are wrong! That is the sacred duty of every citizen, because what is done to the least of us can be done to all of us.
If we believe in democracy and justice for all, we must oppose the Un-American policy of excluding any persons from our country on the basis of race, religion or national origin; and the surveillance and abusive detention of any persons based on racial or religious profiling. It is wrong! It does not make us more secure, but on the contrary undermines the foundations of our country that make us strong.
The film ‘Never Give Up’ by Holly Yasui about her father Min Yasui will be shown on Saturday, June 25, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. at Wing Luke Museum. For more information about the film, visit minoruyasuifilm.org.