American Concentration Camps

Over the past week when I saw the images of caged kids and heard audios of wailing little ones snatched from their parents who were seeking asylum, I wondered if anyone remembered America’s history of separating families. Certainly slavery was an early example; families were split apart on the auction block.

In the 1860s, the U.S. government authorized forcibly removing Native American children, no more than five years old, from their families and literally imprisoned the children in U.S. boarding schools hundreds of miles from their homes. This practice continued for almost 100 years. The Native children were to be “educated”—indoctrinated in American ways in order to erase tribal culture. Some of the children repeatedly ran away, but were caught, punished, and locked in the school, which in effect was like a concentration camp.

I also thought of the Japanese concentration camps of the 1940s. I was a teenager at the time and well remember the cruelty of forcing American citizens of Japanese heritage out of their homes in coastal California and herding them into hastily built barracks and even converted horse sheds. These “relocation centers,” as they were euphemistically called, were set up in remote desert areas of California’s interior and in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences. Men in towers holding machine guns guarded the exterior.

After the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor, U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson convinced then President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Japanese-Americans were likely to turn on the United States, although there was no evidence to support that supposition. Most people of Japanese ancestry were farmers, business people, or small shop owners. They had lived peacefully in their communities and were loyal U.S. citizens. But Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942. For the next three years, it was the policy of the U.S. government to imprison people of Japanese descent in isolated camps. Many of the people in the concentration camps were in the U.S. military but were discharged or placed in segregated units that performed menial work.

When most of the camps closed in 1945 (the last one in 1946), many Japanese returned to homes that had been ransacked and businesses in disrepair. Many had to find ways to start all over again, but throughout the United States, Japanese American faced housing and employment discrimination. About this time, my dad somehow arranged a job for a young Japanese man Mr. Ishizuki in the bookkeeping/accounting office of Zion Industries in Zion, Illinois. Mr. Ishizuki worked with my dad and stayed at my parents’ home for a short time, sleeping on a pullout bed, until he could find his own housing. He left to make his way in Chicago where he had friends.

Years later, in 1972, I met a survivor of the Japanese internment camps, Kiyo Sato. She was in my writing class and had produced an enlightening essay about her experiences. Her parents had emigrated from Japan and become U.S. citizens. She explained what happened after the relocation order went into effect:

I walked in the house after school, and knew in an instant that something ominous was happening. My mother was sitting in a chair, alone, hands in her lap. She pointed to my room. Through a half open door I could see a man with a hat sitting at my desk. He was reading what looked to me my diary. My first reaction was to rush in and grab it away from him. But mama whispered that there was another man in the attic and still another somewhere outside. “FBI” she said and my heart froze.

Kiyo went on to say that she was frightened because two family friends had been taken away the week before and no one knew where they were. In spite of the fact that one of Kiyo’s brothers was serving in the U.S. Army, she and her family were also forced to leave their California home, giving up their land and many of their belongings. Like many others of Japanese descent, they were herded onto a train with armed guards. They traveled all night and by morning reached the end of the rail line. Then they were taken by truck into the sagebrush. She and her family along with hundreds of others ended up in the Potson Indian Reservation in the desert, even though tribal leaders objected to having a concentration camp on their land. For months they lived in “tarpapered barracks” that “stretched out as far as one could see,” Kiyo said. Each family shared a single room and there was no indoor plumbing. I thought many times after reading parts of her essay, that she should write a book about her experiences. I don’t know if she ever did.

Many survivors of the Japanese concentration camps have shared their experiences in publications as have members of Native American tribes whose ancestors struggled with being separated from their families. The negative impacts of these experiences last for a lifetime and belie Fox News’ Laura Ingraham’s absurd contention that the current concentration centers for children of parents seeking asylum are “essentially summer camps.” God help us (if there is a god!)


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