Immigration, Racism and the Internment of Japanese Americans

On February 19, 1942, then President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the U.S. government to forcibly remove thousands of American citizens who lived on the Pacific Coast and relocate them to concentration camps located inland in remote parts of Arizona, California, Idaho, and other states in the West. More than 120,000 people were relocated to these concentration camps and many lost their businesses, homes and assets in addition to their freedom.

The incarcerated were forced to live in barracks-style buildings in camps surrounded by high fences. Families ate together at communal dining halls and children attended schools with few windows in blistering heat and teacher student ratio of 48:1. And on top of these conditions, the U.S. government hoped that the imprisoned could make the camps self-sufficient by farming to produce their own food, although the soil was not generally good for farming.

What was the crime these people committed? The only thing they had done "wrong" was being of Japanese ancestry at the time when World War II began. The vast majority of those incarcerated were American citizens who were solid members of the community and loyal to their country. They had successful businesses, worked at farming, and valued education. In fact, despite their imprisonment, some of the incarcerated volunteered for military service in one of two all-Nisei army regiments and went on to distinguish themselves in battle.

One of the many examples in American history of a failure to respect civil liberties and cultural differences among immigrants and their descendants, the Japanese internment should give us pause when we hear right-wing politicians argue for preventing Muslims from entering the country, building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, or claiming that Muslim immigration is an attempt to destroy Christianity.

For all of the claims that America stands for liberty and freedom, we live in a society that has routinely found reasons to trample civil rights and disrespect those who are perceived by those in power, or those who want to be in power, as different. Slavery and the treatment of Native Americans are the obvious examples, but there are many more throughout American history.

In the 19th Century Irish Catholics were marginalized in American society and discriminated against in hiring, when help wanted signs often had "Irish need not apply" written on them. And in the later part of the century there was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that prohibited all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S.

The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the population from that country already living in the U.S. as of in 1890 Census. This law was aimed at restricting immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, but also banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians in order to preserve American racial homogeneity.

Racial and religious differences have often been at the center of discrimination against both immigrants and American citizens who are descendants of recent immigrants. And the argument usually goes that such people represent some sort of danger to the American way of life, threaten national security or undermine Christian morality (despite the fact that the U.S. is not a Christian nation, nor were many of the authors of its Constitution Christians).

So when you see those on the right claiming that we need to do something about Muslims, Mexicans or whatever other group they don't like, keep in mind those Americans of Japanese descent who were imprisoned simply for looking like Japanese people. They were not Japanese. They were Americans, and many of them -- more than 30,000 -- served loyally in the U.S. military with over 800 killed in combat during World War II.

Sadly, the story of Japanese internment is nothing new in U.S. history and the attitudes that allowed that injustice continue to the present day. This may be a country that claims lofty ideals, but words are cheap. Rather than continuing our failure to uphold those ideals by continually finding new groups to hate and restrict, we should learn from our past and realize that the best way to show our patriotism is to work toward actually achieving a society that values liberty and justice for all.