This essay has been republished with permission from Densho.
For decades, “Never Again” has been a rallying cry for many Japanese Americans. Invoking these words reminds us of the trauma of our own community’s persecution and unlawful detention. It channels that trauma into action to defend the rights and liberties of other marginalized groups, including our Muslim friends today.
As passionate as we are, we have not been entirely successful in weeding out America’s xenophobic and racist tendencies. Shades of our wartime suffering persist: from the systemic profiling and mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinx men, women, and youth, to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, to the detention of immigrant families.
But Friday, President Donald Trump took us further down a bigoted path of imagining and fearing enemies within our country. Under the guise of national security, he signed the order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” into law.
The order suspends entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, bars Syrian refugees indefinitely, and blocks entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
It doesn’t explicitly name Muslims as the target of this refugee ban, just as Executive Order 9066 and the alien land laws directed at Japanese Americans never mention “Japanese” by name. But the message and the outcome are clearly aimed at those who practice Islam.
Just as Japanese Americans were suspected of disloyalty on the basis of race in World War II, so too are Muslims being cast as potential ISIS co-conspirators now. While a Muslim travel ban is not the same as locking up citizens and resident aliens, the logic behind the two acts is dangerously similar.
In the Final Report on the Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast (1943), then commanding general of the Western Defense Command John DeWitt wrote:
“The continued presence of a large, unassimilated, tightly knit and racial group, bound to an enemy nation by strong ties of race, culture, custom and religion along a frontier vulnerable to attack constituted a menace which had to be dealt with. Their loyalties were unknown and time was of the essence. The evident aspirations of the enemy emboldened by his recent successes made it worse than folly to have left any stone unturned in the building up of our defenses. It is better to have had this protection and not to have needed it than to have needed it and not to have had it – as we have learned to our sorrow.”
DeWitt’s justification was invalidated by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which acknowledged WWII incarceration was a result of “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a lack of political leadership,” not sound national security policy.
But a draft of Trump’s Jan. 27 Executive Order (the final text was not available as of this writing) uses similar framing, implying that by virtue of religion and ethnicity, Muslims are not to be trusted:
“In order to protect Americans, we must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward our country and its founding principles. We cannot, and should not, admit into our country those who do not support the U.S. Constitution, or those who would place violent religious edicts over American law.”
Japanese American incarceration didn’t happen overnight. It happened after decades of vilification, legal measures, and discrimination, much like what Muslim immigrants, refugees, and citizens are now being subjected to.
As I write this, individuals arriving from the seven countries on Mr. Trump’s ban list are being unlawfully detained in American airports, denied legal counsel, and subjected to religious tests. This is inhumane and unconstitutional. Legal action has already been taken to contest the ban, but there is little that can be done to alleviate the immediate suffering and detention the executive order has motivated.
In decrying Trump’s ban, some have rushed to say, “This is not who we are. This is not what America stands for.” I speak out quickly and forcefully because I know too well that this is what America has stood for.
It was America that enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
It was America that banned immigration from Japan in 1924.
It was America that repatriated and deported Mexican immigrants and citizens en masse.
It was America that closed its doors to Jewish refugees attempting to flee the bloodshed of the Holocaust.
And it was America that locked my parents and grandparents away during World War II for the sole crime of Japanese American ancestry. And when my uncle gave his life in service to America, my grandparents had to suffer through a somber flag ceremony in the middle of a desolate American concentration camp.
But this is the America of our past, and it’s up to us to create the America of our future. We are at a turning point in our nation’s history and it is up to us to put our values into action. I urge you to pay close attention, tune in to the pain of the most vulnerable, speak out, protest, support refugee legal defenses, use whatever skills you have to fight this fight, and mean it when you say “Never Again.”
This is not a test.