By Gil Asakawa
I’ve monku’d from time to time that JACL as an organization can focus too much on the World War II incarceration experience. Remembering the past is important because we don’t want to forget what happened, but living in the past can drive away people who want to live in the present.
But in the past few weeks, I’ve been proud as hell of JACL and our role in America — both yesterday and today.
As the president of the Mile High JACL chapter, I was recently interviewed by Denver’s NBC affiliate, KUSA, to comment on the separation and incarceration of Latin American children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
And I was encouraged that many news outlets across the country turned to JACL to speak out about this treatment of families who are coming to the U.S. for succor and comfort, only to be traumatized so brutally.
JACL Executive Director David Inoue was on the news, and JACL National President Gary Mayeda was quoted in the media.
Other JACL leaders at the chapter level were probably acknowledged as important voices in the struggle for civil rights.
That’s the role JACL always should take in our communities. Some might disagree or point out past lapses, but we have a long record and a recognized brand as banner-bearers for social justice.
JACL was quick to pronounce, in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, that Americans shouldn’t cast all Arab Americans with the same broad brush that was used to paint Japanese Americans in the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
We’ve repeatedly protested when ignorant lawmakers since 2001 have raised the possibility of a Muslim ban, a registry or even camps to incarcerate an entire community. We’ve pointed out whenever someone makes the mistake of saying the JA concentration camps were a good thing, how wrong such statements are.
Personally, I’ve been appalled as the level of racial discord and animus toward ethnic minorities — especially people of color — has exploded in the past couple of years. The idea of a wall to keep people out of the country sounded to me like echoes of our isolationist attitudes in the years leading up to WWII, when we turned away a boatload of Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazi threat in Europe.
But I was focused on the Muslim community this time around and helped organize events supporting and building bridges with local Muslims. I’ve thought the wall was a crazy pipe dream, more symbol than reality. Now, I’m not so sure. I took my eyes off the plight of Latino immigrants — the legitimate asylum seekers, not the “rapists,” “drug dealers,” “gang members” and “not good people.”
When I first saw news coverage of the camps where the children were imprisoned, I was struck by the official government photos that media outlets were given. Kids were playing video games, exercising in the prison yard, hanging out in rooms that looked like a summer camp dormitory. These photos vividly reminded me of the official federal photographs of the Japanese American concentration camps: families eating together, parents setting up cozy-looking apartments, kids outside on makeshift playgrounds.
Those were staged and posed images, presenting the picture-perfect sense that these entire families didn’t mind their incarceration, that all was well.
Back then, like today, all wasn’t well.
Continued news coverage and visits by lawmakers revealed that infants were taken from their mothers and more than 2,000 children were scattered — some in the middle of the night — across the U.S. to camps, prisons and centers where they were handled by strangers who weren’t even allowed to comfort the youngest children by picking them up and hugging them.
I’m relieved that the public outcry led the president to, for once, back down on a decision and keep families together, eventually even rescinding the “no tolerance” policy that sparked the separations in the first place. But for the kids who were ripped from their parents, the damage is already done. Some families may not be reunited for a long time — if at all!
Think of the trauma these children will suffer, no matter how old they are today. Sansei Japanese Americans suffered a spike in suicides in the early 1970s — showing just how long the psychological damage of trauma can linger, handed down through generations.
Ironically, all of this is happening as the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 approaches.
President Ronald Reagan — an iconic beacon of light for Republicans — signed the act on Aug. 10, 1988, which led to a formal government apology for the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII out of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” The law also allowed for reparations, though some JAs refused the small amount out of principle.
Mile High JACL is commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act with a fundraiser for our scholarship fund. We’re hosting Denver’s AAPI theater troupe, Theatre Esprit Asia, staging the powerful one-act play “Dust Storm,” about the incarceration at the Topaz concentration camp, featuring images of JA artist Chiura Obata, who was incarcerated at Topaz. We’re also showcasing a short performance by a man who re-creates the speeches of Ralph Carr, the Colorado governor who opposed the JA incarceration in 1942 and paid for it with his political career (he had been on a fast-track to be the GOP nominee for president).
It should be an inspirational night — and a reminder that the fight for justice isn’t over yet. JACL will always fight that fight — that’s why I’m proud of the organization.
Gil Asakawa is the P.C. Editorial Board Chair and will be on a panel discussing family caregiving at the JACL National Convention in Philadelphia, July 18-22.
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