JA WWII Experience Relevant to Different Communities

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Immigrants share their stories at 2019 DOR.

Panelists (from left): Lisa Okamoto, Amritpal Kaur, Leticia Bustamante, Reshma Shamasunder and Brian Niiya (moderator). (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Following is Part 2 of a report on the 2019 Day of Remembrance program held at the Japanese American National Museum on Feb. 16.

A panel discussion was led by Brian Niiya, content editor for Densho. “Before Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps in 1942, they were immigrants who came to this country from Japan starting in the late 1800s,” he said. “We don’t necessarily talk about that a lot in our community, but a fair number came in contravention of immigration laws — some by literally jumping ship and swimming to shore, some crossing the border from Canada or Mexico, some using fairly elaborate fraudulent passport schemes to gain entry.

“As a racially distinct population that spoke a different language. They were easy targets and scapegoats for nativist and opportunistic politicians that portrayed them as dangerous, nefarious, inscrutable, and laws were soon passed restricting their immigration, prohibiting them from buying land or from becoming naturalized citizens. These were the parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, maybe even great-great-grandparents of many of us in this room.

“After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 40-plus years of anti-Japanese agitation culminated first in the roundup and incarceration of community leaders who were separated from their families … Then, after that was deemed insufficient, followed by mass roundup and incarceration of all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast …

“In recent years we’ve been hearing unsettling echoes of these stories using some of the same words — scapegoating, family separation, round-ups. So our panel today includes people who are taking the lead fighting back against these efforts in a variety of different ways.”

“Immigrants Are Under Assault”

Reshma Shamasunder, vice president of program strategy at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said that she lives down the street from the site of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station in Tujunga, where Japanese, Italian and German immigrants were held. “I pass it almost every day … I think that this history so important because what we’re seeing happening at the border, the treatment of immigrants by the Trump Administration is simply horrific … We are really living in a moment where immigrants are under assault.”

Although immigration policy is often thought of as a Latin American issue, she said, “Almost 40 percent of the Asian American population actually are foreign-born. We have among the largest immigrant populations of any community and we’re the fastest- growing … About 16,000 Asian Pacific Islanders are DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipients; APIs comprise 11 percent of the undocumented population …

“The Trump Administration has been attacking our family immigration system. Many of the proposals over the course of the last year are intended to …. make it much, much harder for low-income immigrants to reunite with their families … to target the most vulnerable.”

Regarding the TPS (Temporary Protected Status) program, which protects immigrants from certain countries from deportation, she said, “We recently filed a lawsuit just last week on behalf of Hondurans and Nepalese with TPS to ensure that they’re protected as well. The end of the TPS program for these countries would result in the separation of families and many people having to leave after years or decades in this country …

“Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants have been targeted … We also, along with our partners across the country, have filed a lawsuit to temporarily halt the detention and deportation of Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants … Their cases are still in process. We’ll continue to fight on their behalf.”

Noting that Japanese Americans spoke out against the administration’s Muslim ban, Shamasunder said that it’s important for them to continue “providing the voice and stories of your families … particularly in this moment when we’re replicating the worst of our history.”

Impact on Kids

Sigrid Toye, a psychologist studying the children of German American internees and a board member of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, was unable to attend due to illness. In a statement read by Niiya, she said that her father was picked up by the FBI during WWII because he was a prominent businessman.

“What followed was wrenching — the separation of our family, my mother’s lack of skills … Hiring Germans was not popular at the time, so things weren’t good at home. Spam in cans, Dinty Moore stew with white rice was the Sunday dinner. Apricots from the trees when there was little else.

“For me, the worst part was being seen as a ‘Nazi German,’ not necessarily by the kids, but by the teachers. Me and my mother were a package. My mother was emotionally delicate and the experience sent her to a sanitarium … at least twice. I was left with a neighbor for a long time and later with strangers that lived up the street from the school I attended. They were an older couple I’d never met … My dad was in camp and my mom was gone, never knowing for how long she’d be away and if I’d ever see her again. After sixth grade, I was sent to boarding school …

“I’d like to remind folks today that the families now separated are going to be impacted in that same way, possibly for life … It hasn’t stopped me, but it’s left me with a deep understanding of that issue … and is most likely the reason I chose to become a psychologist working with kids.”

“What About My Parents?”

Leticia Bustamante, a DACA recipient who came to the U.S. at age 5 from Tijuana and a project coordinator at the UCLA Labor Center, recalled, “The reason that we decided to come to the United States was because my grandmother at the time had a very aggressive form of cancer and we could no longer afford chemotherapy. The money that my parents were making in Tijuana was not that much, so my dad came in U.S. to work … to make some money and go back to Mexico.

“But once he got here, he realized that this was a better place for his family and the best thing for us to do as a family was to move here. Initially my mom did not want to move … But ultimately they did it for me. They did it for my brother … I’m forever thankful for that decision that they made.”

Bustamante recently graduated from UCLA with a major in political science and a minor in labor and work studies. She started college at a time when the California Dream Act was available for undocumented students.

While DACA provides work permits for thousands of immigrant youth, she said, “What about my parents, who are just as deserving, if not more than I am, for an opportunity to work legally in this country? … They [the government]are also going to increase funding for ICE [Immigration and Customs Control] and for Border Patrol, and we’re going to see more raids and maybe my parents won’t come home one day.”

Since her permit expires in Octobr 2020, Bustamante said, she too is living under a cloud of uncertainty as the future of DACA continues to be debated in Washington.

“I am in a mixed-status family,” she said. “… I am on DACA. My younger brother is on DACA …. My youngest brother is a U.S. citizen. And then I have my parents, who are completely unprotected. So in the event that something were to happen to our family … my youngest brother would be left without parents or siblings, and he’s 12 right now.”

As coordinator of a program called Dream Summer, she said, “It’s been life-changing and it is an honor to be a part of a program that empowers immigrant youth and builds the next generation of leaders … making sure that we as immigrants are the ones who have a say in what happens to us.”

Quoting the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians’ conclusion that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was the result of race prejudice, wartime hysteria and failure of political leadership, Bustamante asked, “Does that sound familiar to anybody? … I think it’s very important to remind folks this happened before. It’s literally happening again. It’s just a different group of immigrants.”

”The Class Terrorist”

Amritpal Kaur emigrated from Punjab as a 4-year-old. “I’m also in a mixed-status family where … myself and my sister were born in India but the other three are born here as citizens.”

She said that her parents left India out of necessity. “My mother was married off when she was about 22 to my father, but my father’s family wanted sons … My mom had two daughters in a row. That was [considered]a bad omen … While my dad was in Dubai doing some transport business work … They started threatening her. They actually kicked her out of the house and she had to go live with her own family.”

Starting school in San Fernando Valley, she recalled, “9/11 just happened a year later. So I actually went through school … kind of seen as the class terrorist … Even some of the teachers I had in LAUSD kind of a singled me out and would be very xenophobic …

“As immigrants, as people of color, we live in sort of dual worlds or multiple worlds of trying to balance everything out. And while doing that, the whole queer thing happened, and ever since I’ve been sort of coming out in different phases.”

Kaur’s involvement in the Dream Summer program at UCLA “really opened my eyes in terms of social justice.” She met others who had undocumented status, then developed an interest in filmmaking with an emphasis on immigrant issues. “I need to have my story in there, as well as other folks that I’m meeting. So for this phase of my life, I identify as a South Asian, undocumented, queer filmmaker.”

Through her new multimedia platform, Brown Girl Joy, and Uplift Los Angeles, an undocumented API youth-led organization, she is mobilizing for DACA while “finding some sort of intentional and intersectional way of bridging the gaps between all of our different communities.”

She told the audience, “If you’re not very politically active, the best thing you can do … is to definitely know your representatives. Because these are the people that you should be calling and sending emails to, sending letters to. Ask everybody around you to be sending stuff to them.”

Hearings Without Representation

Lisa Okamoto is managing attorney of the Children’s Representation Project at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, a nonprofit law firm in Los Angeles. “Our mission is to implement what’s called a universal representation program in Immigration Court,” she explained. “… An undocumented person or a person who is seeking legal status can come in many shapes and forms. We represent those who are forced into deportation proceedings … You may or may not have an attorney. That happens a lot in Family Court, in Probate Court, but Immigration Court is very unique … Even though you are always against a government-trained attorney, if you cannot pay for an attorney, you will not get an attorney. And that includes everybody, including children …

“In different detention facilities that are throughout Southern California, our goal is that no person in a deportation proceeding is standing alone in court. I specifically manage … a program that represents unaccompanied minors.”

In 2014, there was a surge of children fleeing violence in Central America and coming to the U.S. border to seek asylum. Okamoto, who has been representing them since then, said, “The rise in detention has skyrocketed. So what that means is those who are here seeking asylum, who have no criminal background whatsoever, either in their home country or here, are likely to be detained …

“They separated the parents from the children. What happened then was the detention centers got flooded and all the immigration detention centers no longer could accept people. So what the federal government decided to do was to place approximately 1,000 people into the Victorville federal prison … without an access to an attorney, without access to an immigration proceeding, without access to interpreters, with terrible conditions. There were provided rotten food. They were not allowed to go outside.

“So Immigrant Defenders Law Center, represented by the ACLU, sued the Department of Homeland Security … to speak to these asylum seekers to do intakes and to try to get them out as soon as possible.”

Okamoto said the detainees she met had similar stories: “I just wanted to do things legally. I presented myself at the port of entry. I can’t believe I’m in shackles and a jumpsuit and they’re treating me like a criminal.”

With migrant caravans coming through Mexico from Honduras and El Salvador, Okamoto and her staff have gone to Tijuana and Mexicali to do “know your rights” training for asylum seekers. “It was frustrating that … they were requiring all asylum seekers … to prove that they have a lawful entry into Mexico to ask for asylum to the U.S., which is impossible because the Mexican government did not provide any sort of legal entry to any of the caravan members.

“Therefore, all these people were stuck … not in the place that they were seeking refuge, but these border towns where there are high crimes … About two days ago, the first people who actually were able to go to the port of entry to seek asylum were shipped back to Mexico because there’s now a new regulation that requires those who are wanting to seek asylum to the U.S. to wait in Mexico … So there are all these challenges that have been set in place …

“I’ve been thinking about kind of the parallels of the internment camps that happened during WWII, and when I talk to these people, on the border or in Mexicali, they were exhausted, they were tired … There are men who are just trying to figure out a way to provide the best thing for their family.”

Like Japanese Americans 77 years ago, these migrants are being characterized as criminals and terrorists, Okamoto said. “Yet the day-to-day people that you interact with face-to-face, you couldn’t believe that a government would treat people in such ways. And so my hope is that this blanket justification of national security be challenged on a daily basis and that we uphold the law that anybody who is here, who’s physically here in the U.S., regardless of whether if it’s in the port of entry, they do have a right to seek asylum …

“It’s true, the immigration system is broken, but we have to start somewhere.”

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