Do We Confront or Conciliate Xenophobia?

Last year, George Takei was appalled at what was happening on our southern border. He wrote:

“…Unless we act now, we will have failed to learn at all from our past mistakes. Once again, we are flinging ourselves into a world of camps and fences and racist imagery—and lies just big enough to stick.”

A prominent journalist, Matt Bai, disagreed and wrote an article for Yahoo News in June 2018. His argument boiled down to this:

“When you stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the distinction between imprisoning citizens because of their lineage (as we did in 1942) and locking up foreigners who turn up at the border (as we’re doing now), you’re setting yourself up to lose the larger argument. You’re saying that the way we treat American citizens isn’t more important, legally or morally, than the way we treat anyone else.”

Right. That is exactly what we are saying. I really don’t think we’ll win or “lose the larger argument” by pandering to and conciliating national chauvinism, and the belief that American citizens are “more important, legally or morally, than…anyone else,” does exactly that. So in our case, our Issei family members being locked up in primitive concentration camps, deprived of their civil and legal rights, were NOT entitled to the same legal and moral considerations as our American-born family members, since the Issei (first generation Japanese Americans; immigrants from Japan) were not citizens?

Unfortunately, I heard a version of Bai’s perspective at this year’s Pilgrimage. My comments that the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is carrying out, essentially, the same racist policies that led to Executive Order 9066, did not sit well with them. “We were citizens. We followed the laws” they say.

Well, most of us were citizens.

This debate clearly raises the question: Does citizenship matter? What about borders? Is what happened to our community really strangely unique in American History and is it all that different than what is unfolding on our Southern border?

In my opinion, citizenship does matter. Country, nationality and of course, borders, matter. But that is not really the issue. The real issue, I believe, is: do we confront or conciliate xenophobia?

If we rest our moral indignation and foundation of our critique of Executive Order 9066 solely on citizenship, then we make a negative concession to those xenophobes dominating our national discourse.

When our government enforced Executive Order 9066, we saw how easily birthright citizenship was revoked by the President. We know Executive Order 9066 resulted in Americans becoming non-Americans based on racial ancestry and that, in a matter of weeks, our American-born family members were “non-aliens.” We also know this racist perspective was how our government justified the removal and unjust incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, including 101 orphans incarcerated at Children’s Village in Manzanar.

This racist policy extended to Latin Americans, as well. An entire story should be written about the Japanese Latin Americans, mostly Peruvians, who were detained at Crystal City, Texas. An agreement, signed between Latin American governments and the U.S. Department of Justice in 1941 led to the creation of the Crystal City Department of Justice camp. It was a hostage camp in which Japanese Latin Americans, as well as German and Italian prisoners, were held for hostage exchanges with the Japanese government. Our government, in the year leading up to the war, placed ancestry above citizenship in Latin America as well.

The demonization of our community before and during World War II was inextricably bound with cultural oppression. This psychological trauma was based on language, culture, and religion—both Shinto and Buddhist—and on other forms of national oppression. It layered these pretenses on top of the denial of fundamental Constitutional rights and intensified the cumulative impact of forced removal. Government policy was clearly driven by a view that Japanese American culture was a threat to the “American way of life.” This obviously impacted the Issei and Kibei (Japanese Americans who were educated in Japan) the most.

The decades-long struggle to win redress and reparations no doubt rested upon the moral and legal arguments that Executive Order 9066 violated the Constitutional rights of American citizens. The common refrain was that two-thirds of those in camp were Americans! It was an outrage that Americans were forced to live in horse stalls, in shabby barracks with substandard food and lack of medical care, simply because of their race. Indeed, it was, and many lives were lost trying to prove that our families were loyal, law abiding Americans.

But as powerful as this argument was, it subtly relegated our non-citizen family members to an inconvenient sidebar discussion. The Issei, in many ways, faced the harshest conditions during camp. Those community leaders, whisked away to federal prisons, separated from their families, sometimes for years, after being sent to places like the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, endured especially difficult psychological and physical hardships. From restrictions on use of the Japanese language to the government’s simplistic view of Shintoism, codified national chauvinism guided the War Relocation Authority. This has been referred to as the policy of “Forced Americanization.”

This is important because Executive Order 9066 was predated by almost 70 years of xenophobic, anti-Asian racist laws and policies, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1870s and Anti-Opium laws of San Francisco—it’s funny how drugs always seem to be part of the calculus. This was the environment our immigrant relatives faced before World War II and most certainly endured while in camp.

Engaging in and trying to argue which racist, unconstitutional, and dehumanizing act is worse is pointless. We can, however, easily conclude that Trump’s “zero tolerance policies” and “child separation” policy are state-sanctioned violence and a form of state-sanctioned terrorism.

It is important for us who wish to influence policy to draw out what the common thread that binds us together is and to expose the foundation of these racist, xenophobic laws and policies. Differences or particularities of national origin do exist. However, they are not consequential in this instance.

Human rights, the universal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that all people are created equal—is what our nation stands for and was founded upon. This is the cause that we should champion. This is what Sue Kunitomi Embrey, my mother, believed and it is why I believe that it is so important for us to stand up for human rights and not allow any subtle—or not so subtle—xenophobia to filter into our community.


In 1975, my mother gave a talk entitled, Concentration Camps not Relocation Centers. In her talk she wrote:

Lynn R. Bailey has written a book called Bosque Redondo: An American Concentration Camp, which chronicles the story of the removal of the Navajo Indians in 1863. Bailey cites in his introduction the studies done by Alexander Leighton, a sociologist who worked at the Poston, Arizona camp, among the Nisei, [second generation Japanese Americans, born in the United States]. Stress and the trauma of the camp conditions found to be most disturbing to the emotions and thoughts of people in confinement were listed.”

Bailey saw the connection between what the Navajo faced and the forced removal of our community and noted the similar psychological trauma both communities faced. Clearly, our experience is not that different, other than in magnitude, of the previous barbaric forced removals and “relocations” by our armed forces and the trauma that the immigrant families, especially the children, suffer today is not all that different from the trauma many in our community suffered. Our outrage should not be tempered or mitigated simply because these children are not U.S. citizens.

LEAD PHOTO: The children and infants in this photograph were among the 101 orphans who were incarcerated in Children’s Village at the Manzanar concentration camp during World War II. They were among more than 120,000 Japanese/Japanese Americans who were falsely targeted as threats to national security by the United States Government. Public domain photo via

Brnce Embrey is Co-Chair of the Manzanar Commitee. He writes from Los Angeles, California.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

Creative Commons License The Manzanar Committee’s Official web site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official web site – Licensing and Copyright Information.

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