Trump plan to incarcerate migrant children at Fort Sill again shows worst of America
My father was one of more than 10,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated at Wyoming’s Heart Mountain relocation camp. It was 1942, and the nation was in the throes of World War II, fighting Hitler’s fascism. From behind barbed wire, my father volunteered for combat.
Just as he fought then, Japanese Americans are fighting once again, as they watch the Trump administration call for the incarceration of asylum-seeking children at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill military base — one of about 10 locations used to lock up Japanese Americans during World War II.
At the outbreak of that war, 700 Japanese Americans were sent to Fort Sill. Eventually, the nation would incarcerate more than 100,000. Last month, many returned to protest the Trump administration’s call to repeat history.
We now acknowledge that World War II’s incarceration was driven by racial hatred. It was a failure of democracy that this nation came to regret. President Ronald Reagan signed an official apology in 1988.
Protester in El Paso, Texas, outside a Border Patrol station where migrants are being held. (Photo: Mark Lambie/USA TODAY Network)
While formal pronouncements of regret matter, the Japanese-American community is attempting to give meaning to the phrase “never again.”
Locked up as children, protesting as adults
My grandmother hung a star in the window of her chilly, tar-papered barrack and waited for her son’s homecoming. He was the only one from his original machine gun squad to return to his mother at war’s end. The rest perished. As a member of the 100th Infantry “Purple Heart” Battalion, my father witnessed the price paid for democracy’s triumph in World War II.
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With the war years well behind them, some elderly Japanese Americans now report the trauma of re-injury. Given recent news, they are forced to remember a childhood in indefinite detention. Survivors traveled to the Fort Sill gate with pictures of themselves as incarcerated children. They held their ground, even as a blustering military police officer ordered them to leave, shouting, “It’s English: Get out!” Once again, a representative of their own government viewed them as foreigners.
“We thought it was over,” says Tom Ikeda, whose parents were incarcerated in Idaho. Ikeda is the executive director of Densho, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the country about internment. His group joined the protest. “Now we see our speaking up is not enough. We have to start going to the streets,” he told me.
Last summer, the Trump administration faced significant backlash, even from some Republicans, for the policy of family separation. Images of detained toddlers and sobbing parents drew outrage. “This is NOT who we are,” was a much-heard refrain. The administration pulled back from an explicit plan of separation, but somehow children were still locked up in the thousands. Reports of children unable to contact family, of sex abuse and deaths in custody, have led to litigation and congressional visits. Despite concerns for child safety, the administration has called to expand incarceration to Fort Sill.
“This is not who we are” is belied by the history of the military base. Located on the plains to impose order in a time of settler ascendency, Fort Sill presided over the displacement of native people. The great Apache chief Geronimo and families from his tribe were imprisoned for years at Fort Sill — the first instance of child incarceration there.
Treating native inhabitants as destined for removal, incarcerating Japanese Americans and locking up refugee children reveal a pattern rather than an aberration, marking the deep contradiction that haunts our nation. Our aspiration to live out the enlightenment notion of common humanity overlays our violent habit of structuring some of us as the other. This is the contradiction that allowed the slave trade to flourish while quill pens inscribed truths self-evident. This is the deal with the devil that declared slavery’s end, while instituting Black Codes and convict leasing. This is what shakes loose when we find ourselves locking up children in military barracks.
When Kanesaburo Oshima, a Japanese immigrant, was sent to Fort Sill, he left behind 11 children and a family business struggling in debt. The stress of incarceration caused him to crack. One day, he ran for the fence. Guards shot him through the skull. Back in a rural town on the island of Hawaii, word slowly reached his family. Oshima’s son, in his recorded oral history, told of being called out of school with the news. He returned home to find his mother weeping on a bench in front of the family store. The Oshima family still holds a memory of their ancestor. “It is a lasting pain,” one descendant told me.
Ikeda, who recorded an Oshima family oral history, says, “A grown man could not withstand the stress of leaving his family. Imagine young children locked up away from their parents.”
Imagine. Doctors and mental health experts use the words “irreparable harm” to describe what happens when children are removed from trusted adults and kept in institutional settings with no access to nurturing care. The government is in violation of court orders requiring basic services for children, and limiting incarceration to 20 days. Many children are held for months on end with no idea of when they will see their families. This summer, the government announced that it could no longer afford recreational and educational services, and reports continue of children sleeping on floors, unbathed and without medical care.
Reagan apology not for individuals
Japanese Americans fought for years for redress and an apology. That fight was not for us as individuals. It was a demand that our nation learn from its mistake and become its best self: land of the free, where all are entitled to dignity. When I heard about the plan to lock up children at Fort Sill, I wept, feeling the assault on the memory of my grandmother.
Having military bases standing ready to imprison the disfavored caste of the day is not what the Purple Heart Battalion fought for. All who love freedom should support the Japanese Americans who marched on Fort Sill.
The government says it must ship children to Fort Sill because it can’t process their asylum claims in a timely way. Would any of us accept that excuse if our children were taken? How we treat those we consider outside our circle of care is a critical test. Disregard of anyone’s humanity can take the ugliest of turns in an instant.
My father was once locked up because he was the wrong race. I made a promise to him to speak up against our government doing this to anyone else.
This should lodge firmly in our national DNA: We do not lock up innocent people, especially children. That is what Hitlers do.
Mari Matsuda is a writer, artist and professor of law at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law.
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