History repeats? Born in former internment camp, woman fights migrant kids' detentions

For activists like Satsuki Ina, holding migrant children in detention centers echoes darker periods of American history.

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By Ludwig Hurtado

LAWTON, Oklahoma — Standing at the entry gate of the Fort Sill Army Base, refusing orders from military police to retreat, Satsuki Ina holds in her hands a 20-inch poster board with nothing on it but a copy of a black-and-white photograph of a toddler girl.

She is the girl in the photo, in the place where she was born — at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California during the World War II period of Japanese internment.

In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcibly removing people of Japanese descent from their homes on the West Coast and putting them in internment camps where they were incarcerated for the remainder of the war.

Fort Sill in Oklahoma was one of the internment camps. Almost seven decades later, it's been part of a plan of the Department of Health and Human Services to house unaccompanied migrant children as an “emergency temporary influx shelter.”

That was put on hold recently after more than 400 protesters, including Ina, held a large demonstration on July 20 to protest its use as a detention center for migrant children. The demonstration was organized by a cross-cultural coalition of groups including United We Dream, Dream Action Oklahoma, Tsuru for Solidarity, Black Lives Matter and the American Indian Movement.

“We understand that Fort Sill has been a place where multiple groups of people of color have been incarcerated,” Ina said as she protested last month. “As Japanese Americans who have been incarcerated, we feel that we have the moral authority to speak up and say that we’re not going to allow this to be the repetition of our own history.”

Explaining why the use of Fort Sill was put on hold, Evelyn Stauffer, a spokesperson for the agency's Administration for Children and Families, said in a recent statement that over the last several weeks, "HHS has experienced a decrease in Department of Homeland Security referrals of unaccompanied alien children (UAC),” adding they have been placing children with sponsors at a historically high rate.

“As such, the UAC program does not have an immediate need to place children in (holding) facilities," Stauffer said. However, days later, the HHS reached out to Florida lawmakers about exploring facilities in Central Florida as potential options for temporary influx shelters to hold migrant children. The department did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

A history of detention

Although Fort Sill was part of the U.S. government’s regrettable period of Japanese internment, its history goes farther than that.

In fact, its very inception as a military base was for the purpose of incarcerating and controlling people of color, said Michael Darrow, a tribal historian for the Fort Sill Apache tribe. The base is built on what was once the homeland of the Kiowas, Comanches and Kiowa Apaches.

“An Indian reservation was set up, and in order to make sure [the native people] stayed on this land, Fort Sill was set up to function as a military base," Darrow said, "so if anybody caused any trouble for any of the settlers who might be in the vicinity, or were not properly under control, they had the military force right here to be able to deal with that."

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The relocation of migrant children at the U.S. border to Fort Sill strikes a particularly poignant parallel to the Fort Sill Apache tribe, which was once known as the Chiricahua Apache tribe. Its original territory covered much of what is now the American Southwest in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico along the United States' border with Mexico.

The U.S. government passed a special provision in 1894 to relocate the Chiricahua prisoners of war to southwestern Oklahoma, making them the last American Indian group to be relocated to an Indian Territory.

Reports of inhumane conditions in the detention of migrant children under the Trump administration have sparked debates around the parallels between the U.S. government's current treatment of asylum-seekers and darker moments in history.

On June 17, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., referred to the centers as “concentration camps”, which led to fierce criticism by some politicians on both sides of the aisle.

But some Jewish groups stood by her comments, and many organized protests at ICE detention centers around the country.

Homeland Security officials said earlier this month that there was a 28 percent drop in the number of migrants encountered by Customs and Border Protection in June as Mexico cracked down on migrants trying to make their way to the U.S.

Stauffer added that it is likely the U.S. will see an uptick in the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children referrals made to the HHS in the fall, based on historical trends.

About 40,900 migrant children have been taken into custody this year through April 30, a 57 percent increase over last year, according to the HHS.

'Continuing the resistance'

Dream Action Oklahoma, which helped organize the demonstration of more than 400 people in Lawton, Oklahoma, last weekend to protest plans to use the base, is viewing this as a victory but is remaining vigilant.

"The organizing coalition is continuing the resistance of child imprisonment in Oklahoma," the group said in a statement.

The controversy around Fort Sill is not new. The base was used to house migrant children during the Obama administration as well.

In 2014, Sens. James Inhome and James Lankford, both R-Okla., had criticized the Obama administration for its use of Fort Sill. However, Inhofe and Lankford are in support of the base’s use under the Trump administration.

Lankford told NBC News that he was in fact happy with the quality of care at Fort Sill during the Obama administration and is confident that the quality of care will be just as high under the Trump administration.

“I don't remember a single protest during the Obama administration when President Obama used Fort Sill, and we housed a thousand people that were there at the time," he said. "They were extremely well taken care of. It was a good facility, and it was set up well for that.”

In June, California congresswoman Judy Chu proposed an amendment to H.R. 3401, the supplemental border appropriations bill, to prohibit any funds from the bill from being used to operate Fort Sill, but her amendment was ruled not in order.

Chu said that Congress had to apologize for its shameful period of Japanese internment, and that it may well be the case that one day the U.S. will have to apologize for its treatment of Central American refugees.

“After all, there are still children who are separated from their parents, and they might never get together with their parents, they may not be able to trace them to even know where they are, especially if those parents were deported to another country,” Chu said.

Chu argues that instead of contracting jails and military bases to detain child asylum-seekers, the government should be placing children in the care of detention alternatives.

"They're being held in these facilities, but they are not criminals," said Chu. "And the only purpose is to have them stay somewhere before they have a hearing.”

For Ina, the work continues. She teams up with her fellow activists from Tsuru For Solidarity, which helped organize the demonstrations outside Fort Sill in July.

During the period of Japanese internment, Ina’s parents were sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center, a maximum security camp where Ina was born. Soon after, Ina and her mother and brother were separated from her father and moved to the Crystal City Alien Enemy Detention Facility in Texas.

In front of the gate at Fort Sill, Ina wore a black T-shirt with bright red text, reading “STOP REPEATING HISTORY!” and below it, “NEVER AGAIN IS NOW.”

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Simone Boyce contributed.