Trump’s Immigration Policies Aren’t Like Japanese Internment

I rarely feel sympathy for Members of Congress, least of all Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, but his tearful plea about separating children from their illegal immigrant parents—“What country is that?”—moves even as it exasperates.  

Far worse than Cummings’ emoting are the hysterical attacks by the media and sanctimonious elites on the Trump Administration policy, ably defended by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. One wonders indeed what country this is.

The assault on defending America from a child-led human wave betrays an evil hand at work, weaving Laura Bush, actor George Takei, and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.) into collusion. Along with others, each compares the separation of children from illegal aliens (often the adults are not parents) with the “internment” of Japanese Americans during World War II. At least this blunder avoided General Michael Hayden’s obscene comparison with Auschwitz. And it provides a teachable moment about how laws protect the people.

All Laws But One?
In fact, the relocation of ethnic Japanese from the West Coast was defensible on national security grounds. With the information Franklin Roosevelt had, it would have been irresponsible for him not to have taken drastic actions. He was following Abraham Lincoln’s July 4, 1861, Civil War plea: “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”

The issue was not that every or even a majority of the ethnic Japanese had primary loyalty to fanatical, anti-democratic Imperial Japan, which earlier had conquered Taiwan and Korea, was waging a brutal war against China, and was advancing into Southeast Asia. Ethnic Japanese adults could not be citizens because of the Immigration Act of 1924, which reflected Progressive racial ideology in denying them that privilege. Would these objects of discrimination look to Japan as their liberator and protector? In any event, Japanese community papers cheered on Japan’s military achievements, and the immigrants donated to its war efforts. Among their sons and daughters, as many as 11,000 over the years went to Japan for language and cultural education.

Pearl Harbor tested the loyalty of ethnic Japanese. And, unfortunately, two Japanese Americans failed the test. Toward the end of the December 7 attack, a damaged Japanese fighter-bomber landed on the isolated island of Niihau, at the westernmost tip of the Hawaiian archipelago. The inhabitants knew nothing of the horrors of the day. The inspired pilot broke the good news to a startled California-born Japanese-American farmer and his wife and won them over to the glorious cause. After a few hours of these armed histrionics, Hawaiians resisted and before long both the pilot and the farmer were dead. If quite ordinary farmers would take up arms, what might be expected of more militant nationalistic ethnic Japanese, especially on the mainland, where they suffered under discriminatory laws? Which country would win their loyalty?

After consulting advisors, Roosevelt heard enough and didn’t want to take chances. Ethnic Japanese on the West Coast had to leave for detention centers and, a few months later, moved to hastily constructed barracks in enclosed centers in the interior of the country. Eventually, Japanese American men could serve in the Army, and they did so winning honors in Europe (notably the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Combat Battalion) and as interpreters in the Pacific. These men (including two uncles of mine) did much to demonstrate loyalty and open the way to post-war return.

The Other Side of Internment
Life in the “camp” barracks was boring, so my parents moved out to work in agriculture in Oregon. In the winter they moved back. Three of my mother’s siblings decided to chance Chicago instead. (One could leave the camps for college or a job outside the West Coast.)
Camp yearbooks illustrate the story of schools, sports teams, dances, work, and social activities. Although the U.S. Supreme Court approved the initial detention (Korematsu v. United States), it also ruled that the government could not hold anyone it couldn’t say was disloyal (Ex parte Endo). So the government disbanded the camps and the Japanese returned to face an uncertain time back in their old communities. Once a ferociously anti-Japanese attorney general, Governor Earl Warren warmly welcomed them back to California.

But there is another side to this story. Initially, my parents went to Tule Lake in Northern California, the birthplace of this psychiatrist who is now protesting the separation of the immigrant children. (The charge that relocation severely injured the inhabitants’ health is based on false comparisons between different populations of ethnic Japanese.)

Tule Lake later was converted to a segregation center to house dissident, typically younger Japanese-Americans who proved to be troublemakers in other camps. (Several thousand ethnic Japanese who renounced loyalty to the United States had been allowed to leave the country for Japan.) At Tule Lake, many of the relocated Japanese demonstrated in favor of Japan and at night attacked the inu (dogs), whom they accused of being informants. Of course, the alleged informants insisted they were being patriotic Americans supporting the war effort.

My parents went to Minidoka, in Idaho, where they were near relatives who lived and worked outside the camp, and whom they could visit on weekends.

Though my immigrant father favored Japan, as did most of his generation, he could do nothing for that cause. My mother felt herself American. One young man, who would later become an uncle of mine, obeyed his pro-Japan mother, refused the draft, and was imprisoned.

A Facile and Foolish Comparison
Finally, the use of “internment” neglects the proper meaning of that term. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the government swept up people suspected of pro-Japan activities—generally aliens, militant nationalists, some community leaders, and some Shinto and Buddhist priests. Without their families’ knowledge, they were interned in separate camps and weren’t permitted communication until months later.

Hawaii posed a separate problem. There was no way to relocate all the Japanese without crippling the economy and workforce. So the military imposed a curfew on everyone. In the meantime, the Japanese military plotted to use elements of the island’s Japanese population, nearly half the total, against the rest, just as the pilot attempted at Niihau. We can rest assured they would have done the same with the continental Japanese had they not been relocated. For a fascinating account, see University of Hawaii historian John Stephan’s Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan’s Plans for Conquest after Pearl Harbor, which appreciates both the military challenges and the tug of ethnic identity.

The best scholarly account of the relocation is Brian Hayashi’s Democratizing the Enemy. While he’s opposed to the relocation, Hayashi lays out facts that allow a contrary conclusion.

Our brief account here of a terrible time in America that also demanded loyalty should, however, suffice to make shameful its facile use in contemporary debates. When critics of the defense of borders thunder Christian imprecations, they might want to ponder whether illegal immigrants are free of original sin. And they might also imagine them as, in fact, clever people who know how to use as well as how to be used. Unfortunately, it seems instead that America’s elites have finally found a use for one Asian-American group.

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Photo credit: Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

Photo: A Japanese American man touches some barbed wire at the Tule Lake Internment Camp, where his parents were interned during World War Two. | Location: Tule Lake Internment Camp, California, USA. (Photo by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)