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One & the Same

January 24, 2008

I often get the question: Claire, what exactly do you work on? One day I’m working on immigration, another torture & habeas corpus, another government spying, and sometimes I throw in work on the federal budget just for kicks. And then, some days I work on a S. 381/H.R. 662 : The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Latin Americans of Japanese Descent Act.

The What? you ask. Well, it’s a funny story that you can read all about in the hidden appendix of the 1988 Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, commissioned by Congress in 1980. S. 381/H.R. 662 would simply set up a Commission to delve a little deeper into this story…

And the story goes: at the height of WWII, 3000 men and women from twelve Latin American countries were deported from Latin America to (yes, to) internment camps in the U.S. These citizens committed no crime except of course, that of being of Japanese ancestry. The U.S. government feared a Japanese attack in Latin America, particularly at the Panama Canal so as a result, all Latin American Japanese were suspect.

Governments made secret agreements, assets were frozen, deportation lists were compiled (according to no real criteria, except prejudice, it seems), normal legal proceedings (oh you know, warrants, hearings, indictment) were ignored, passports were confiscated and all of the sudden, 3000 citizens of Latin America found themselves in various camps from Texas to Montana. Families pleaded to be kept together; some even chose deportation to the U.S. rather than being separated. Arthur Shinei Yakabi, a deported baker from Peru, later recounted:

“I was asleep in February 1943 when some Peruvian police came and arrested my employer. My employer pulled a fast one by bribing the police, and offered me as a substitute.”

Despite their involuntary arrival into the U.S., deportees had no visas and so were, in Lou Dobb’s magical words, “illegals.” Some were then used (yes, used) in prisoner exchanges with Japan—sent to Japan where many of them had no ties whatsoever. And of course, at the end of the war, the U.S. government scratched its head trying to figure out what to do with all these interned deportees. Internees filed habeas corpus petitions, applications for citizenship, or voluntarily repatriated to Japan. Negotiations dragged on and the internment program did not officially come to an end until 1953.

John Emmerson, a well-informed American diplomat in Peru during the program, wrote more than thirty years later: “During my period of service in the embassy, we found no reliable evidence of planned or contemplated acts of sabotage, subversion, or espionage.”

The Commission report appendix concludes,“Whatever justification is offered for this treatment of enemy aliens, many Latin American Japanese never saw their homes again after remaining for many years in a kind of legal no-man’s-land. Their history is one of the strange, unhappy, largely forgotten stories of World War II.”

A legal no-man’s land where suspected enemy aliens are held without due process? Why does that sound familiar? I may work on a million different “issues” but at the end of the day, they’re all one and the same.

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