Woman and baby at a Japanese internment camp, ca. 1942.
Frederick R. Thorne/Presbyterian Historical Society
first person / justice

‘At Least During the Internment …’ Are Words I Thought I’d Never Utter

I was sent to a camp at just 5 years old — but even then, they didn't separate children from families.
Imagine this scene: Tens of thousands of people, mostly families with children, are labeled by the government as a threat to our nation, used as political tools by opportunistic politicians, and caught in a vast gray zone where their civil and human rights are erased by the presumption of universal guilt. Thousands are moved around to makeshift detention centers and sites, where camps are thrown together with more regard to the bottom line than the humanity of the new residents.

That is America today, at our southern border, which asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants alike are seeking to cross. But it is also America in late 1941, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, when overnight my community, my family, and I became the enemy because we happened to look like those who had dropped the bombs. And yet, in one core, horrifying way this is worse. At least during the internment of Japanese-Americans, I and other children were not stripped from our parents. We were not pulled screaming from our mothers’ arms. We were not left to change the diapers of younger children by ourselves.

Photos of children in cages and camps today so strongly evoke the wartime past that former First Lady Laura Bush drew a stark parallel in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history,” Bush wrote. She reminded us that there are dark consequences to such camps for their residents: “This treatment inflicts trauma; interned Japanese have been two times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.”

When a government acts capriciously, especially against a powerless and much-reviled group, it is hard to describe the terror and anxiety. There is nowhere to turn, because the only people with the power to help have trained their guns and dogs upon you. You are without rights, held without charge or trial. The world is upside down, information-less, and indifferent or even hostile to your plight.

And yet, with hideous irony, I can still say, “At least during the internment …”
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