Border Crisis Prompting New Xenophobic Drumbeat for an Old Disgrace—Detention Camps

Seventy-two years ago, U.S. military locked members of my family, along with many other Japanese-Americans, in prison camps behind barbed wire.

Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona. Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. 
Getty Images
Aug. 6, 2014, 1 a.m.

Sev­enty-two years ago, U.S. mil­it­ary of­fi­cials labeled Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­ans “an en­emy race.” Be­cause they were Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­ans, the gov­ern­ment locked mem­bers of my fam­ily—along with many oth­er men, wo­men, and chil­dren—in pris­on camps be­hind barbed wire.

That fam­ily his­tory makes it es­pe­cially pain­ful for me to watch our coun­try march­ing refuge-seek­ing Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren and fam­il­ies down a sim­il­arly shame­ful path. Too of­ten, the United States vi­ol­ates its prin­ciples in re­sponse to the vo­cal ra­cism and xeno­pho­bia of some and the si­lence of too many who watch it hap­pen.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s World War II de­cision to in­car­cer­ate Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies was fueled by dec­ades of ra­cist agit­a­tion against Ja­pan­ese im­mig­ra­tion. When the war came, some white Amer­ic­ans saw it as a chance to take back a coun­try they felt was be­ing over­run by an ali­en race. As farm­er Aus­tin An­son told The Sat­urday Even­ing Post in 1942, “We’re charged with want­ing to get rid of the Japs for selfish reas­ons…. We do. It’s a ques­tion of wheth­er the white man lives on the Pa­cific Coast or the brown men. They came in­to this val­ley to work and they stayed to take over.”

Oth­ers were quite clear about what they wanted to hap­pen to these “Japs” once ar­res­ted. In early 1942, Nevada Gov. Ed­ward Carville wrote to mil­it­ary au­thor­it­ies that while he was will­ing to ac­cept con­struc­tion of a Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an con­cen­tra­tion camp in his state, “I do not de­sire that Nevada be made a dump­ing ground for en­emy ali­ens to be go­ing any­where they might see fit to travel.”

Today, a sim­il­ar xeno­phobic drum­beat is sound­ing against the Cent­ral Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies and chil­dren seek­ing refuge in the United States. Rush Limbaugh re­cently called the chil­dren “il­leg­al ali­en in­va­sion forces.” Ann Coulter ac­cused im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ad­voc­ates of “work­ing fe­ver­ishly to turn the coun­try in­to Mex­ico.” Rep. Phil Gin­grey, R-Ga., a phys­i­cian, as­ser­ted that the fam­il­ies and chil­dren flee­ing vi­ol­ence south of the U.S. bor­der pose “grave pub­lic health threats” to Amer­ic­ans. And dur­ing the now-in­fam­ous bus-block­ing protest in Mur­ri­eta, Cal­if., one man waved a sign read­ing: “Mur­ri­eta is not a dump­ing ground for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.”

Of course, his­tory nev­er re­peats it­self in ex­actly the same way. The Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­ans in­car­cer­ated dur­ing World War II were gen­er­ally long-term res­id­ents and U.S. cit­izens. In con­trast, the latest tar­gets of this coun­try’s spe­cial blend of ra­cism and xeno­pho­bia are new ar­rivals—par­tic­u­larly wo­men and girls—flee­ing hor­rif­ic vi­ol­ence in Cent­ral Amer­ica. Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions’ Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men, vi­ol­ent deaths of wo­men in Hon­dur­as in­creased 263.4 per­cent between 2005 and 2013. And asylum re­quests from Hon­dur­an, El Sal­vador­an, and Guatem­alan na­tion­als have in­creased 712 per­cent in Mex­ico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Bel­ize since 2008, ac­cord­ing to the U.N.’s refugee agency.

In Cent­ral Amer­ica, gangs act with im­pun­ity. To take just one ex­ample: Ms. L, a preteen, was dragged from her home and raped by more than a dozen gang mem­bers, ac­cord­ing to the Je­suit min­is­tries in Hon­dur­as who work in part­ner­ship with groups as­sist­ing girls vic­tim­ized by vi­ol­ence. After re­port­ing the gang rape to the po­lice, her fam­ily began to re­ceive death threats. When a shel­ter de­clined to take Ms. L in be­cause it could not pro­tect her or any of the oth­er shel­ter res­id­ents from gang vi­ol­ence, she fled the coun­try.

Cent­ral Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies need to have their claims for asylum or oth­er leg­al im­mig­rant statuses care­fully eval­u­ated in fair hear­ings, with coun­sel, be­fore im­mig­ra­tion judges. In­deed, the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on re­cently filed a law­suit ar­guing that every child should re­ceive leg­al rep­res­ent­a­tion in these hear­ings. In­stead, grow­ing num­bers of wo­men and chil­dren—many of whom have fled real threats of vi­ol­ence, sexu­al as­sault, or even death—are be­ing locked in re­mote de­ten­tion fa­cil­it­ies, far from im­mig­ra­tion at­tor­neys, and rushed through the pro­cess. This of­ten hap­pens without these wo­men and chil­dren ever re­ceiv­ing a chance to tell their stor­ies to an asylum of­ficer or a judge.

Their de­ten­tion is un­ne­ces­sary. People across the polit­ic­al spec­trum have be­gun to ex­press the view that al­tern­at­ives to de­ten­tion are more hu­mane and ef­fect­ive, and far less costly.

Yet, just as the Roosevelt ad­min­is­tra­tion used the lan­guage of “mil­it­ary ne­ces­sity” to ac­com­mod­ate the de­mands of anti-Ja­pan­ese ra­cists on the West Coast, Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have re­ques­ted fund­ing for a massive in­crease in “fam­ily de­ten­tion” of Cent­ral Amer­ic­an par­ents and chil­dren. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion did so not be­cause these young wo­men and chil­dren pose a risk to pub­lic safety, or be­cause such mass de­ten­tion is ne­ces­sary to en­sure par­tic­u­lar in­di­vidu­als show up for their im­mig­ra­tion court hear­ings. In­stead, the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion did this to “send a mes­sage” to oth­er Cent­ral Amer­ic­ans. As Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son put it dur­ing a re­cent de­ten­tion-fa­cil­ity tour, the ex­ist­ence of de­ten­tion cen­ters re­served for fam­il­ies with chil­dren “rep­res­ents proof that in­deed we will send people back” to the coun­tries they are try­ing to es­cape.

That is a shame­ful mes­sage in­deed—and one that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will rightly con­demn. To stay on the right side of his­tory, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion must halt its ex­pan­sion of fam­ily de­ten­tion.

Carl Takei is a staff at­tor­ney with the ACLU’s Na­tion­al Pris­on Pro­ject.

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