SAN JOSE — Many Japanese American communities across the country have reacted with alarm to the announcement that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is planning to use Fort Sill in Oklahoma for detaining unaccompanied migrant youth from Central America.
The community rooted in San Jose’s Japantown is no exception. But if they are bothered by the parallels with their past, they also are determined to organize to make a difference in the lives of people facing detention, separation, and deportation today. They held a solidarity vigil on June 27 at the Issei Memorial Building in Japantown.
Jeff Yoshioka, president, Japanese American Citizens League, Silicon Valley Chapter, commented, “Many of us were shocked to see a detention camp for Japanese Americans resurrected today for children. We need to learn from past history and not put unaccompanied migrant minors at Fort Sill.”
Fort Sill is part of the WWII history of forced exclusion and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, both American-born citizens as well as their Japanese immigrant parents. That fort was the site of the detention of 700 Issei men who were arrested and held without charges. One man, distraught over being separated from his wife and family, panicked and ran, and he was shot dead by a guard.
Erica Boas of San Jose Nikkei Resisters said, “The proposal to imprison unaccompanied minors at Fort Sill demonstrates a historic and blatant contempt for humanity. It is a disgraceful abandonment of fundamental principles of human rights, which has been normalized in the history of the U.S., but is uniquely illuminated with each group incarcerated at Fort Sill. “
Fort Sill also played a large role in the history of oppression of Native Americans. Many were restrained there as prisoners of war in the final stages of the U.S. removal of Native Americans from freedom on their own lands into the reservation system. Fort Sill was also the site of a boarding school that served as a means of separating families and depriving Native children of their language and culture.
“It’s ugly and ironic for the government to choose Fort Sill, a site that evokes memories of suffering for both Japanese Americans and Native Americans,” said Masao Suzuki of the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee. “Several of the concentration camps that held Japanese Americans during WWII were on reservation lands, and the head of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) that administered the camps, Dillon Myer, went on to head up the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and he promoted forced assimilation to both populations.”
After spending decades doing public education about the forced exclusion and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, recently some have been participating in efforts to defend immigrants from what many are saying are inhumane policies. Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance of Santa Clara County, made his position clear. “The Muslim travel ban, the border wall, the attack on the family immigration system, the threat to launch mass deportations, and the plan to detain child migrants at the Ft. Sill Army base in Oklahoma – these are all glaring examples of anti-immigrant and anti-family policies of the Trump Administration.”
The ad hoc committee in Japantown was called together by San Jose Nikkei Resisters, and it includes the Asian Law Alliance of Santa Clara County, the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, and three local chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League – San Jose, Silicon Valley, and Sequoia. All of these organizations have a history of grassroots organizing and are rooted in a commitment to civil liberties.
They are calling on people to sign their petition to the heads of HHS (Health and Human Services) and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) to stop the use of Fort Sill as housing for unaccompanied minors on both symbolic as well as policy grounds.
“As Japanese Americans, using Fort Sill doesn’t sit right with us,” said, Kathy Higuchi of San Jose Nikkei Resisters. “But we’re also concerned that choosing sites on federal land may absolve HHS from complying with more rigorous state rules regulating the treatment and welfare of minors. In the light of recent revelations about abuse and neglect of children in government custody, this oversight is crucial.”
Tom Oshidari, co-president of the San Jose JACL, concurred. “Among those legislators who favor temporary detention of children at Fort Sill, would any dare to place his or her child/grandchild in unregulated federal custody as they are proposing?”
Not satisfied with symbolic protest alone, the committee is also starting a campaign to pass legislation in the House that addresses the needs of asylum seekers and the undocumented who are already here.
“We want people to rally support for some bills in Congress right now,” said Tomio Hayase-Izu of San Jose Nikkei Resisters. “There are things that regular people can do as individuals, as members of organizations and churches. We want people to call their representatives to co-sponsor and vote for H.R. 1069 – the Stop Child Prisons Act and H.R. 541 – the Stop Family Separations Act.
“We need to limit ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) funding to stop their out-of-control deportation machine. People in our community are affected by this, in both the Latino and Southeast Asian communities. In San Jose, a lot of folks are organizing. We want to contribute, too.”