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Opinion: Japanese-American Incarceration Is 'Unforgivable Policy,' Not Precedent

"[Internment] is a lesson to America on how not to treat our own people as a response to fear, whether real or exaggerated."
Rep. Mark Takano, R-Calif., walks down the House Steps after the final vote of the week on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015.Bill Clark / AP

This time a year ago, I wrote a response to a House bill that would have expanded screening processes for Syrian refugees escaping civil war and oppression. I argued that such a bill lacked compassion and understanding. It was unjust and discriminatory in its capitulation to fear — a fear that, while valid to an extent, has been deployed to excuse reprehensible acts on our own soil. In the same piece, I criticized a statement by the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, that held up the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a model for how the United States should address the global refugee crisis.

Two weeks ago, Carl Higbe, a surrogate for Donald Trump, said that Japanese American internment provided a legal precedent for the President-elect’s plans of a registry for immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.

So let’s try this again.

RELATED: Trump Supporter: Internment 'Precedent' for Muslim Registry to 'Protect America'

I have spoken about this injustice before and I will continue to reject such injustice now: the forced relocation and imprisonment of innocent Japanese Americans, including my own parents and grandparents, was an unforgivable policy. It placed collective blame on 120,000 people and reduced them to their nation of ancestry. It was dehumanizing and reinforced the notion that Japanese Americans were at best, second-class citizens, and at worst, threats to a nation to which they belonged.

Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 Supreme Court case that upheld the government’s right to imprison Japanese Americans without due process, is widely derided by the legal community as a profound failure in American jurisprudence. It belongs in the category occupied by Plessy v. Ferguson and other infamous decisions that reflected attitudes at the time but are considered unfathomable and unconstitutional today.

In signing into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that provided for restitution payments to survivors of incarceration, President Reagan described it as “a grave wrong” that was “based solely on race.” Internment is a cautionary tale for any immigration policy proposal. It is a lesson to America on how not to treat our own people as a response to fear, whether real or exaggerated.

Despite this lesson, or perhaps in spite of it, internment keeps coming back. According to Mr. Higbie, and all of those before him who have chosen to distort its violent injustice, the undue suffering of my family and so many others is a “precedent” necessary to “protect America first.”

Let’s try this yet again.

RELATED: Behind Barbed Wire: Remembering America's Largest Internment Camp

"Internment is a cautionary tale for any immigration policy proposal. It is a lesson to America on how not to treat our own people as a response to fear, whether real or exaggerated."

The incarceration of Japanese American citizens during WWII on the basis of race was a discriminatory and reprehensible act. Therefore, in case it was not already clear, to mandate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries on the basis of historical imprisonment of Japanese American citizens must likewise be a discriminatory and reprehensible act.

A Muslim registry requires us to isolate and reject whole groups of people by religion and regional origin. Muslim Americans who have called this country home for years or generations — our friends, neighbors, and coworkers — would be labeled as “other.” Policies based on bigotry and fear have no place in this country. America’s greatness is directly tied to our commitment to upholding the core principle of equality under the law.

On Nov. 20, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus was asked if the Trump Administration would seek to create a registry of Muslim Americans. His response was, “I'm not going to rule out anything.”

He should have known — and Donald Trump should know — there is only one acceptable answer to that question.

“Never again.”

Congressman Mark Takano represents California's 41st Congressional District.

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