From Concentration Camps to Immigration Bans

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Today’s refusal to trust Muslims as citizens is based on the same argument historically made to support the incarceration of Japanese Americans

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt legalized the detention of Japanese Americans via Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. While the order did not explicitly target Japanese Americans, the U.S. government rounded up over 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, justified on the basis of “military emergency.” The Secretary of the Navy at the time, Frank Knox, believed in a “fifth column of saboteurs” that included both Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent.

This “fifth column” fearmongering about an enemy within has also been utilized by today’s anti-Muslim activists. Frank Gaffney, who runs the Center for Security Policy, a hub for anti-Muslim speakers and ideologues, believes Muslims in the United States comprise of a “fifth column,” seeking to undermine the U.S. Constitution. During World War II, General John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command who was in charge of the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans, firmly believed that ethnicity was a key indicator of national loyalty, and thus even many “second- and third generation” Japanese Americans could not be trusted. Today, Muslim Americans’ religious identity is pointed to as the source for potential disloyalty. This is illustrated in U.S. politician Newt Gingrich’s 2016 proposal to “test” every Muslim in the U.S. and to deport those who believe in Sharia.

Replace the ‘military emergency’ of the World War II era with today’s discourse around ‘national security’ and we have the justification for today’s discriminatory executive orders aimed at halting immigration and banning refugees from select Muslim-majority countries. The two executive orders — one from the 1940s and the other from our own time — illustrate how constitutional violations can become acceptable in the name of national security. Today’s refusal to trust Muslims as citizens is based on the same argument historically made to support the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Japanese Concentration Camps

Of the over 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent removed and forcibly relocated to camps, two-thirds were U.S. citizens of all ages. The incarcerations resulted in zero evidence of any sabotage or treason within the Japanese American population. In parallel, under the second Bush administration, over 83,000 boys and men from majority-Muslim countries were required to register under the National Security Entry and Exit Registry (NSEERS). NSEERS yielded no terrorism convictions but resulted in 14,000 Muslim men and boys undergoing deportation proceedings, mainly for visa overstays.

Japanese Americans were singled out; no similar precautions of mass expulsion and confinement were taken against German and Italian Americans, even though the German and Italian governments were allied with the Japanese against the U.S. during the war. The use of concentration camps for Japanese Americans, which lasted for two and a half years, occurred despite government reports themselves concluding the Japanese Americans posed no significant security threat.

Today in America, Muslims are singled out and profiled based on their religious and ethnic identities. But that is not the case with those identified by the FBI and reputable think tanks as posing the biggest threat of terror attacks in the U.S.: members of white nationalist groups.

The locations of forced detention of individuals of Japanese descent in America have commonly been called “internment camps;” this anodyne terminology is misleading. Japanese Americans have themselves stated that “internment” is a euphemism and the correct terminology is concentration camps. The camps were prisons with barracks where individuals lived in harsh conditions, and were surrounded by barbed wire fence, watch towers, and patrolled by armed guards. They were confined to these locations “for military or political purposes on the basis of race ethnicity,” The U.S. Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, established by President Reagan at the time the U.S. government issued an apology for its treatment of Japanese citizens during World War II, contends that concentration camp is the appropriate terminology.

Muslim internment camps have not materialized, but the prerequisites for such a measure are present. In 1976, just over thirty years after the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans, it was discovered that the FBI had “compiled a list of 26,000 Americans who would be ‘rounded up’ during a national security emergency.” This provides greater evidence that support for the exclusion and incarceration of a segment of the population remained even after the closure of Japanese concentration camps in 1946. Growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the ‘West’ has materialized into physical violence as demonstrated by the increasing number of cases of bomb threats, mosque arsons, harassment, and deaths. Popular support for legal measures aimed at curtailing the rights of Muslims can easily be manipulated to support future extremist measures such as mass incarceration.

Fears of demographic change

In the United States today, politicians have endorsed demographic reshaping, asserting that ‘white’ lives and bodies hold more value than non-whites. Iowa congressman Steven King declared on CNN,“ We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies… You’ve got to keep your birth rate up, and that you need to teach your children your values.” When pressed on whether he viewed all Americans as equal, King firmly stated that backgrounds mattered. In King’s eyes, American culture is defined as Euro-American Christian; all others are inferior.

Congressman Steve King’s definition of ‘American’ could have come from the 1922 case Ozawa v. United States, when the Supreme Court determined that Japanese Americans were “not Caucasian and therefore belong entirely outside the zone on the negative side,” thus creating a racial hierarchy where ‘white’ was superior.

King’s comment followed the same xenophobic logic employed by a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army during the early 20 th century, who argued against immigration because within some races, “the number of children seems to multiply rapidly.” This obsession with population numbers and race echoes white nationalist’s beliefs that the ‘white’ American population is in danger as a result of immigration and multiculturalism, going so far as claiming “diversity” is a code word for “white genocide

The past and present

The precedent of Japanese American concentration camps can be used by the government to support future discriminatory policies against other groups. A green light by the public for government policies that suppress the human rights of a segment of the population establishes a dangerous model that can be reapplied to new ‘enemies.’ Anti-Japanese sentiment existed prior to World War II as part of the larger anti-Asian movement that began with the Chinese in the late 1800s. The Japanese were viewed as outsiders whose assimilability was questioned. The events of Pearl Harbor led to greater hostility and culminated in the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese in 1942. In December 1942, Gallup asked whether the Japanese should be allowed to return to the Pacific coast when the war is over: 48 percent of Americans said no.

Similarly, 49 percent of Americansagreed with the January 27th, 2017 executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. In the last year alone, the intermixing of politically expedient Islamophobia and anti-Muslim grassroots movements has culminated in the legalization of bigotry. This is visible in the increasing regularity of incidents of violence targeting Muslim communities and government policies curtailing the civil liberties of Muslims in the ‘West.’

Islamophobia is not restricted to our daily interactions; it is structural and institutional, visible in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) framework and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policies, which disproportionately target and essentially criminalize Muslims. In an effort to dispel this dangerous rise in bigotry and demonization, action must be taken at a popular level to learn from historical injustices and recommit to promises to never repeat yesterday’s crimes.