February, 1942: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Within the next couple of years, 127,000 citizens and legal residents of the United States were imprisoned in “relocation” camps. Their crime: Being Japanese or of Japanese ancestry.
February, 2017: After his first attempt to ban citizens from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — from entering the United States was negated by the 9th Circuit Court, President Donald J. Trump is rewriting the executive order. The crime of these people: Living in countries that have a majority-Muslim population.
1905; George Santayana: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Seventy-five years after Executive Order 9066 was executed, the United States is on the verge of committing another injustice of potentially historic proportions. In the past, when we have blundered and repeated actions that were heartless or hurtful to others, we’ve convinced ourselves that we are not evil or even just duplicitous in causing harm; we Americans simply have “short memories.” So, let’s remind ourselves about what happened in the homeland during World War II.
The 40s and before
During the first half of the decade of the 1940s, we were involved in a declared war that spanned the globe. The enemy was principally the “axis powers,” Germany, Italy, and Japan. Because we are a nation of immigrants, we had citizens, legal residents, and newcomers from all three countries. So President Roosevelt initiated an order that allowed military commanders to designate sections of the country as “military areas” (also called “war zones”) from which “any and all persons may be excluded.”
The only designated region, however, was the West Coast, that is: California, and parts of Oregon, Washington, and even Arizona (not a coastal area). Although the East Coast was home to millions of Italians and people of Italian ancestry, and the Midwest held lots of Germans and people of German ancestry, they were not affected by the presidential edict. But Italian Americans and German Americans descended from white Europeans; Japanese Americans did not.
Furthermore, those of Japanese ancestry had long been the targets of discrimination. Although only about 2,000 Japanese came to this country before 1890, by 1900 that number had increased more than tenfold. The vast majority of these immigrants (called “Issei”) located in California. By 1906, there were 93 Japanese students scattered among San Francisco’s 23 schools. Because other residents did not want their children associating with the “foreigners,” the school board created an “Oriental” school, and ordered all Japanese to take their classes in that one location.
President Roosevelt instructed his attorney general to initiate lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of that action. Consequently, the school board rescinded its action with the understanding that Roosevelt would enter into a “Gentleman’s Agreement” with the Emperor of Japan by which America would stop discriminating against people of Japanese ancestry who were already in the U.S., and Japan would not allow its citizens to emigrate to America (with a few exceptions, mainly for people with certain skills or academic degrees).
Most Japanese, however, did not live in San Francisco, but settled in farmlands where they became very successful. Then, California passed the Alien Land Act (1920) which prohibited Japanese from owning land or being guardians for land “owned” by their children who were born in the U.S. and, therefore, American citizens, at least theoretically. Of course, the Naturalization Act of 1790 was still in effect, and it stated that U.S. citizenship was available to “any alien, being a free white person.”
Although free African Americans and former slaves were granted citizenship by the Fourteenth Amendment that was passed by Congress in the 1860’s, many courts did not think that the privilege extended to Japanese residents because there was no question about their “former condition of servitude.” Although the concept of being “natural born” Americans seemed to apply, controversy continued to plague the “Nisei,” or the generation born in the U.S.
Productivity breeds contempt
By 1941 when the U.S. officially entered the war, Japanese farmers in California produced 42 percent of the state’s truck crops. So, white growers and shippers pressed for their evacuation during World War II. Under Executive Order 9066, Japanese people in the “military areas” (62 percent of whom were U.S. citizens) were declared persona non grata and could either move inland or be placed in internment camps for the duration of the war.
During the spring of 1942, nearly all of the West Coast Japanese were removed from their homes and businesses and relocated to camps that were guarded by armed militia. The U.S. Bureau of the Census assisted in this forced migration by providing “confidential” information regarding residences and neighborhoods of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans, even those who had as little as 1/16th Japanese ancestry. When lawyers who were sympathetic to the Japanese American cause brought the case to the Supreme Court, the issue of “due process” was completely disregarded.
Overcoming emotional scars
Although the U.S. government relented before the war was over, the damage had already been done. Japanese Americans had already lost their homes, farms, and businesses. However, some had neighbors and friends who held their interests in trust, but even those victims had suffered the indignity of being uprooted, imprisoned, and otherwise discriminated against by their own government.
In more recent decades, Japanese American males and females have performed well above the norms of those who have completed high school and college. The mean income of Japanese Americans is the highest of any identifiable ethnic or racial group. Sansei (third generation), Yonsei (fourth generation), and Gosei (fifth generation) citizens have increasingly entered professional fields, making significant contributions to U.S. society.
By placing a ban on immigration from the seven Middle East countries, we are denying ourselves the benefits that might accrue from people who are seeking the freedom to realize their potential. Having been a judge for numerous student competitions in Madera, I am continually impressed by the performance of children whose parents have come to us from Middle East countries like those on the list cited above.
But, beyond our obsession with achievement, there is a more basic reason to oppose the current executive order, a reason that reaches down to the very soul of our existence:
1905; George Santayana: “Injustice in this world is not something comparative; the wrong is deep, clear, and absolute…”