By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Following is Part 3 of our coverage of the 48th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held April 29 at the Manzanar National Historic Site in Inyo County.
The U.S. welcomed 14 new citizens at the second annual naturalization ceremony held at Manzanar.
Despite anti-immigration sentiment coming from the White House, Superintendent Bernadette Johnson said they didn’t have second thoughts when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) contacted them again about hosting another swearing-in ceremony.
“There really wasn’t any debate about doing it,” said Johnson. “I think it’s meaningful to have it at Manzanar, considering that during World War II, a third of the people who were confined couldn’t become citizens, so I think having 14 new citizens take their oath of citizenship here really provides a very meaningful day for them to know the history behind the people who endured incarceration and couldn’t become citizens.”
Japanese immigrants were barred by law from becoming naturalized citizens until 1952.
The 14 new citizens originated from six countries — El Salvador, France, Honduras, the Netherlands, Philippines and Mexico, with more than half sworn in from Mexico.
Ellen Woo, USCIS Western Regional Office Operation associate regional director, administered the Oath of Allegiance.
After the ceremony, Lynn Quan Feldman, USCIS Fresno field office director, briefly shared her thoughts on Manzanar’s history and encouraged the new citizens to return to Manzanar.
“Come back to remember the day you became citizens,” Quan Feldman said. “And remember the same struggles and sacrifices that I’m sure some or all of you have gone through and now, the triumph that you’ve accomplished today. Come back and remember that history and share that history. This is a shared history, and it is not the most beautiful of our history but it is our collective history.”
Monica Torro, USCIS district director (D22), who was largely responsible for making the partnership with Manzanar possible, said, “We couldn’t find a better place to make your ceremony memorable for you, for your family, for your friends. It’s part of all our history, and it is so important that we learn our history and look towards the future so that we do not lapse into the errors of yesteryear.”
Saburo Sasaki, a volunteer at Manzanar and former Manzanar inmate who first entered the camp on April 28, 1942, discussed his family’s experiences during World War II in the camps and encouraged the new citizens to never give up.
“You have to be adaptive, resilient and take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you,” said Sasaki. “By doing that, it’s not always a straight line between what you would prefer and what you cannot do, but eventually if you put your mind to it, you will get there.”
Jose Jovanny, one of the new citizens who hailed from Nayarit, Mexico, said he has been in the U.S. for 19 years and that it took him about 10 years to get to this point of getting a citizenship.
“I applied because I wanted to vote, I wanted to be part of the government, part of the country,” said Jovanny. “And of course, for the benefits.”
Regarding the current political climate, Jovanny couldn’t see a new border wall going up between the U.S. and Mexico and was optimistic that “we can move forward and figure ways to work things out between the two countries.”
Like Jovanny, David Jimenez, another new citizen from Tequila, Mexico, said his road to citizenship took about 10 years. He was not sure how the situation with the border wall could be resolved but was happy that the current political situation did not prevent him from getting his U.S. citizenship.
Rosa Mascenas, who came from Oaxaca, Mexico, said initially she did not think it was important to apply for U.S. citizenship but now feels it is very important to have it. Speaking with Mario G. Reyes, Rafu photographer, serving as interpreter, Mascenas said now that she is a U.S. citizen, she “feels safer.”
While Manzanar held its second naturalization ceremony, Mark Kirchner, a longtime Manzanar Pilgrimage attendee and supporter, was fighting possible deportation.
In March, Kirchner applied for a passport. This was his third time, and the past two times he had applied, he had never had a problem of being issued a U.S. passport.
This third time, however, Kirchner received a letter, dated April 14, from the U.S. State Department requesting “additional documentation to further establish your U.S. citizenship.”
“I was shocked when I received this letter,” said Kirchner. “I thought, how do I prove it more than a birth certificate?”
Kirchner was born at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital in Los Angeles in 1961. His mother is an American of European descent and his father was of Mexican heritage. His parents separated while Kirchner was young and he was raised by his stepfather, whose last name he adopted. Both his biological father and stepfather have since passed away and his mother is currently undergoing chemotherapy to battle cancer.
He knows little of his biological father but believes he was a naturalized citizen who served in the Army.
The government letter is requesting that Kirchner provide as many of the following documents as possible:
• California birth certificate with name change
• Records of his mother’s medical care prior to and after birth
• Religious records created near the time of his birth
• Newspaper birth announcement
• Early school transcripts
• Evidence of his mother’s residence in the U.S. at the time of his birth such as tax records, employment records or medical records.
Kirchner said he can relate to what the Japanese Americans went through during the war, now more than ever, as he wonders why he is being asked to provide more documentation. He wonders if his support of different causes such as civil rights for ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ community got him singled out.
“I really don’t know if any of this factors in except for the idea that if you’re going to round up three to 12 million people, you’re going to have to cast a big net and when that net closes in, a lot of people get caught in it,” said Kirchner.
Kirchner, who teaches photography at Soka University, said his students are dumbfounded by his situation.
He wonders if agents will one day show up at his home or classroom and deport him.
Although it is not unusual to have former inmates of Manzanar return to the campsite, the Historic Site also regularly has former staff members returning as well.
This year, former Manzanar Superintendents Tom Leatherman and Les Inafuku, Frank Hays’ widow Norma, and former Manzanar staffer Misty Knight were volunteering at the pilgrimage.
In addition, Mike Reynolds, former superintendent of the Lava Beds Monument and the Tule Lake Unit of World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, was a pilgrimage volunteer.
Other notable attendees included Martha Lee, deputy regional director for public use management, Pacific West Region for the NPS, and Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo