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Asian Caucus members: California's apology for Japanese American incarceration is 'long overdue but important'

"We must reckon with our past and cannot forget about what happens when political leaders allow discrimination to dictate policy," Rep. Mark Takano said.
Image: A group of Japanese-Americans arrive at the Manzanar internment camp in Owens Valley, California, on March 21, 1942.
Japanese Americans arrive at the Manzanar internment camp in Owens Valley, California, on March 21, 1942.Eliot Elisofon / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Asian American lawmakers in California say it may be seven decades later but they're still applauding an effort to have the state apologize for its role in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, or CAPAC, responded to the state's bill HR-77, in which California would formally apologize for "its failure to support and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of Japanese Americans." The state Assembly is expected to approve the bill Thursday.

While the apology would come more than 70 years after the incarceration camps closed, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., a CAPAC member, said he believes it's still significant for the state to recognize its part in the WWII-era mass removal.

"For the California Legislature to approve a resolution to formally apologize for the role the state played in the unjust internment of innocent Americans is long overdue but important, nonetheless," said Takano, whose family was imprisoned. "We must reckon with our past and cannot forget about what happens when political leaders allow discrimination to dictate policy."

The legislation, introduced by Assembly member Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat who represents part of the Los Angeles area, points out that California agencies and officials had failed, on a number of occasions, to defend Japanese Americans. It notes that the Assembly approved questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans with dual citizenship at the time. The State Personnel Board had also fired those of Japanese descent who worked for the state government by spring 1942, including Mitsuye Endo, who sued California and was in turn removed and incarcerated while her case was pending.

The bill also acknowledges the anti-Japanese measures that were taken decades before the war, a prelude to forced removal and incarceration of over 110,000 people based solely on race.

In 1913, California enacted the Alien Land Law, which barred immigrants who were ineligible for citizenship from owning land. It also prohibited immigrants who were ineligible for citizenship from entering long-term leases. The legislation had tried to keep Japanese immigrants from remaining in the area or coming out West altogether.

Many other Western states enacted similar laws.

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Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chairwoman of CAPAC, underscored the importance of recognizing that "the prejudices against Japanese Americans did not start with the internment." She said there are parallels between the course of events then and several of President Donald Trump's policies today.

"It was years in the making," Chu said of Japanese American incarceration. "The reason it's important right now is because we have the rise of prejudice against immigrants and against ethnic minorities in this country. Trump's supporters have, in fact, cited the legal example of Japanese internment as justification for his expansion of the Muslim ban."

Carl Higbie, a retired Navy SEAL who was a Trump surrogate during the 2016 presidential campaign, had touted Japanese American incarceration as a "precedent" for a Muslim registry.

Chu said that the Trump administration had not only restricted travel from several Muslim-majority countries, but that it has also expanded the ban, adding six countries last month — Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania — to the seven that were covered by the initial 2017 policy.

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., added that the detainment of migrant children at the border serves as another parallel to the discrimination experienced by Japanese Americans. Government data from November show that a record 69,550 migrant children were held in U.S. custody over the past year. Meng said she traveled to the border to witness the detention centers herself.

"Children sitting listlessly on the cold cement floor. Mothers wondering if they'd ever see their children. These memories are forever seared in my mind," she said. "We are better than this, and we must reject the administration's immigration tactics. We have been and always will be a nation of immigrants. The Trump administration cannot erase this fact."

Going forward, advocacy groups, including Densho, a nonprofit that preserves Japanese American history, are urging that more states, or "even organizations and institutions that were complicit in the WWII incarceration, take steps to address that past harm." But Nina Wallace, the organization's communications coordinator, said the apology should be backed up by measures to keep similar incidents from occurring.

"In California, this resolution is building off of actions that state has already taken to try to block ICE expansion and protect immigrant communities," she said. "I think that's a positive example of both apology and action."

Takano said he was grateful to his home state for "taking this important step and issuing this apology."

"The Japanese American community endured pain and suffering, as they had their civil liberties violated for no reason other than their Japanese heritage, and families like mine still bear the scars from the suffering they underwent during Japanese American internment," he said.