Editors’ note: This is part of our series on the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed on Feb. 19, 1942.
On Feb. 19, 80 years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066), an act that would directly lead to the mass incarceration of nearly 120,000 people for no other reason than their Japanese ancestry. In the years since, the government has apologized for the injustice inflicted upon the Japanese American community during the war. But we must not mistake what happened for an isolated single injustice, but recognize it as part of a pattern of racism and xenophobia that has permeated the United States’ history and continues today.
The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was founded in 1929 in response to the racism experienced by the Japanese immigrants (issei) and their citizen-by-birth children (nisei). Today, as Executive Director of JACL, I work alongside my colleagues and civil rights groups from other communities to safeguard the civil and human rights of all communities who are affected by injustice and bigotry.
In a cycle that illustrates the recurring patterns of racism in U.S. immigration history, racially targeted immigration policies, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, initially opened up opportunities for Japanese laborers to immigrate. But the anti-Asian policies soon spread to successive communities, including the Japanese, with the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 significantly curtailing immigration from Japan. Throughout the U.S. west, Alien Land Laws barred non-citizens from owning property, and in 1913, California passed the first Alien Land Law specifically targeting Japanese immigrants. In 1924, immigration laws were changed to expressly exclude Japanese immigration, ending the Gentlemen’s Agreement.
JACL was founded in response to these policies and also as a means of activism for the nisei, who were more firmly American than Japanese in their education and culture and sought to distinguish themselves as citizens of their chosen country. Unfortunately, their numbers were not significant enough to effect change to the discriminatory policies, only significant enough to continue to engender the hatred and racism that would blossom in the lead up to and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
EO 9066 was issued under the auspices of “military necessity.” Notable about EO 9066 is that “Japanese” is not actually mentioned. The order grants the military the wide latitude to exclude or incarcerate any individuals deemed a military threat because of where they were located. Once this was implemented, the intent was clear that U.S. officials exercising authority under the Order were targeting specifically and nearly exclusively people of Japanese ancestry.
And yet, all the evidence the government had, indicated very little threat from the broad ethnic Japanese population. Some threats had been identified, but it was suspected that the Japanese government actually had more white spies employed than Japanese within America’s borders.
In 1980, Congress appointed the nine-member Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to officially study the incarceration that took place under EO 9066. It is through the work of the CWRIC and other research that we now know the “military necessity” was entirely a facade that had no truth to it whatsoever.
What is, and was even at the time, well known is the deep-seated racist attitudes of General John DeWitt, who led the calls for mass incarceration. But ultimately, while DeWitt may have provided much of the basis, incarceration would not have happened without the consent and action of the entire governmental apparatus. Perhaps the most quoted line from Personal Justice Denied, the Report of the CWRIC, is: “The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Incarceration was made possible by racism that existed both in society and in the halls of power.
Ultimately, the result of the CWRIC was a set of five recommendations for redress:
- That Congress pass a joint resolution offering a public apology;
- That the President pardon those convicted of curfew violations and review other wartime convictions based on discrimination due to race or ethnicity;
- That Congress direct agencies to review applications for restitution of positions, status or entitlements lost by individuals because of their Japanese ethnicity during the war;
- That Congress appropriate funds to establish an educational foundation to address the nation’s need for redress; and
- That Congress provide redress of $20,000 to each of the remaining 60,000 surviving persons of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during the war.
JACL had prioritized three items, the individual redress payments, the apology, and the establishment of a fund for education. This last is what has endured in the form of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant program and in JACL’s and other community organizations’ primary purpose of educating the public on the legacy of our community’s incarceration. That education highlights the lasting importance of understanding what led to EO 9066, including in the context of current times and parallels to discrimination and bigotry faced by other communities.
In the wake of 9/11, the Japanese American community saw the potential for Roosevelt’s proclamation of “a day that would live in infamy” – and the domestic repression that followed – repeat itself, as the country rallied to respond to the first attacks on American territory since Pearl Harbor. JACL leadership at the time consisted of executive director John Tateishi, who had led much of JACL’s efforts in the redress campaign, and president Floyd Mori, who was well connected in Washington, D.C., and the civil rights community. JACL was swift in its response with a statement and outreach to the Muslim community. The presence of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who had been incarcerated at Heart Mountain as a child, in George W. Bush’s cabinet informed the president of the legacy of Japanese American incarceration, and President Bush promised that what happened to Japanese Americans would not happen to Muslim Americans.
Unfortunately, while formal mass incarceration like that under EO 9066 did not manifest itself, we have seen the infiltration of racism in policy implementation. Despite all the proclamations that there is no racially based screening at the TSA lines, early on it was well known that those stopped for additional screening were often identifiable as Muslim, or even Sikh, because of the identifiable marker of wearing a turban. And a 2017 ACLU report found that the TSA’s own documents showed that its supposedly race-neutral “behavior detection program” resulted in racial harassment and profiling.
And, as Professor Lori Bannai writes in another Just Security piece published today, in a move that echoes EO 9066, the Trump administration’s travel ban used the pretext of a claimed security threat to exclude people from countries that were almost all majority Muslim.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in extraordinary measures to prevent the disease from spreading, this has also led to the invocation of a public health emergency impacting U.S. immigration policies. Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act was enacted nearly 80 years ago to give the government the tools to combat pandemic, just as we are today. Among other things, it grants the government the power to exclude or detain people who have recently been in a country where a communicable disease is present, for the purposes of excluding the disease from the United States. But during the COVID-19 pandemic – when the disease is already crossing borders in myriad ways – Title 42 has been applied by both the Trump and Biden administrations to severely restrict entry by non-citizens, including asylum-seekers with claims protected under international law, at the United States’ southern border. The implementation has meant that thousands of people seeking asylum in the United States have been kept out, and even many already in the country have been detained and deported. These actions have largely targeted Black and Brown immigrant communities, even as U.S. borders have remained open for commerce and other forms of travel.
In our work at JACL, we continue to unfortunately see the failure to learn the lessons of EO 9066: that laws and policies can be weaponized against minority communities. But we also see hope in another lesson from the Japanese American experience: that the U.S. government has the capacity to provide redress for past wrongs. Japanese Americans have joined the fight for Black reparations for the past injustices of slavery and Jim Crow, and ongoing police violence against communities of color, recognizing these as state actions for which the government must similarly take responsibility. A proposal for a commission similar to CWRIC to study Black reparations has been proposed since 1989, the year after redress passed. It has been introduced in Congress every year since and now has the support of over 215 members of Congress, but still has not seen a vote.
The late justice Antonin Scalia once stated the two worst decisions by the Supreme Court were Korematsu and Dredd Scott, which essentially upheld the injustices of Japanese American incarceration and slavery, respectively. The United States has apologized and compensated for one of those mistakes, but has yet to tangibly act to apologize or compensate for the other.
As we remember EO 9066, it is important to remember it in the context of what happened before and since. For those of us in the United States, it is one example of an unfortunate pattern of racism in our country, and important to our understanding that our government maintains policies that – sometimes in text, but, today, more often in practice and implementation – discriminate against minority communities. As we look back, we can also hope that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was correct that the moral arc of the universe continues to bend towards justice. But it is our responsibility to work to bend it. To ensure that we never again repeat the atrocity of what happened to Japanese Americans, we must work cooperatively to root out all forms of racism that continue to exist and must continue grappling with the many ways that it has shaped our history.