Opinion: Commentary: End Today’s Cruelty against Families

Opinion: Commentary: End Today’s Cruelty against Families

Japanese Americans travel between housing barracks with Heart Mountain on the horizon.

Japanese Americans travel between housing barracks with Heart Mountain on the horizon. Public Domain, Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority.

I know a fair amount about internment camps because my grandfather worked in one. He worked at the Heart Mountain Japanese Internment Camp, Wyoming. He never despised the Japanese, and made many friends in the camps, and after the war he signed up to do two tours of duty in Japan, where he made more lifelong friends and where my mother hosted a radio program on the base in Okinawa.

But these internment camps were prisons, where Americans, because of their nationality were incarcerated against their will, their property seized, and their freedom taken away. Over 17,000 children were incarcerated. They were not treated well, being put into race tracks and fair grounds and staying in stables, herded like cattle. These camps were not without violence as well, as some were shot trying to escape. There was a riot at the Santa Anita race track caused by lack of food and overcrowding. There were 10 camps in all and when they were closed in March of 1946 after a secret Supreme Court order, there was a problem with what to do with the internees whose property and livelihood had been taken away.

My grandfather left Heart Mountain and went to Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas to help Japanese resettle. A Japanese internee who is still alive, but was born at that camp recently said: "When I hear about what's going on now at the border, I can't help but reflect on my own family's experience … That imagery, of folks in cages, it made me think of all of those lost hopes and dreams and plans. I've heard people argue it's different, but it's not. Because what I see is people exploiting a powerless group and dehumanizing them in order to make a political point. And it's hard for me to sit by and watch that happen again."

Former first lady Laura Bush has noticed similarities: "These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history."

A former member of the California Assembly, Sarah Reyes said: "Then, they called Japanese citizens the enemy. They said they were going to destroy America. Fast forward to today, you hear the same rhetoric coming out of the administration about these undocumented residents … I don't think it's a stretch to compare ... My greatest fear is that we have orphaned hundreds, if not thousands of children, and that is unforgivable … If more people had spoken up when Japanese Americans were being dehumanized, some of those horrors could have been avoided."

But this week the President has threatened ICE raids causing fear in communities all around us. That is how the internment camps started, with the rounding up of people without just cause. People will be fearful of going to the police, fearful of going to the doctor, fearful to go to church, and fearful of going to school.

And the more we learn about the detention of refugees the more frightening it gets. Children, who should not be detained for more than 48 hours, are separated from their parents for weeks and months, some of them infants. They are not given toothbrushes, or soap, and not allowed to shower. They are put in cages and given only an aluminum blanket for warmth in overcrowded facilities.

But we know, this is a crisis this administration has created, to demonize immigrants. They refuse asylum requests and instead of letting asylum seekers return later for a court date they are simply locked up. We do nothing to help stop violence in the South and Central American countries where some of these immigrants are fleeing violence, or possible death, yet we refuse them entry and have made Mexico patrol its southern border and keep immigrants on its side of the U.S. border, forcing some to try a dangerous crossings like the one across the Rio Grande where the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, were found on June 26. Nineteen other immigrants have died in detention centers. So we are not only detaining immigrants, separating families, jailing children, we are causing their deaths.

So in our history we went from Japanese Internment camps to immigrant detention centers. There are 200 detention centers and jails that house immigrants, not just 10 camps. 15,000 immigrants a day are detained and there may be over 400,000 in detention somewhere. The authorities holding these immigrants seem to lose track, and they don't let reporters or members of Congress in to visit, so we don't know. Many of these facilities are also for-profit, so the more people they lock up the more they profit. And the more they profit, the more they donate to the campaigns of the politicians who support them. Yet we still can't provide basic necessities. They are out of sight, and it is hard to hear the real stories, especially as reporters and Congress members are not allowed in to talk to immigrants and take photos. But recently there was testimony in front of Congress, one by a woman whose baby died in ICE custody. This prompted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to say that the unsanitary conditions and unsafe environment were actually a culture of cruelty.

So did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez go too far when she called these facilities "concentration camps"? She was backed in her opinion by an author and expert on the history of concentration camps, Andrea Pitzer who explained to Esquire magazine that the definition of a concentration camp is “mass detention of civilians without trial,” exactly what she said is happening in the U.S. southern border.

But the larger point I believe she was making is that we have seen this sort of cruelty before and it was a prelude to worse cruelty, and we once said "Never Again." So whether it is Japanese, Jews, or immigrants, we must say it again and again, "Never Again." We will not stand for repeating history, and we will not stand for a President that does not value the freedom of everyone or have respect for the dignity of human life. We must end this cruelty, especially against children, now.