Though the Department of Justice deemed the measure unnecessary, 75 years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It is considered to have been one of the largest violations of civil liberties in the nation.
More than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, including my family who were natural born citizens, were taken from their homes (which they lost) and incarcerated in one of 10 remote, barbed wire enclosed internment camps for 3 years - the duration of the WWII. Thousands were elderly, disabled, children or infants too young to know the meaning of treason. Two-thirds were citizens.
Roughly 90% of American-born Japanese and Japanese-American citizens lived along the west coast at the time, about 125,000 people. Those pushing for their removal, and the creation of internment camps, argued that people of Japanese ancestry were likely to conspire against the US if Japan invaded the Pacific coast.
Life before the executive order was already extremely difficult for Japanese Americans in the US, who faced racism. In 1907, Japanese were banned from getting American citizenship. Immigration from Japan was halted in 1924. Japanese immigrants struggled to settle in white neighborhoods, where signs encouraged them to "keep moving."
With the exception of a tiny number of Japanese women married to white men, the process was ruthlessly efficient, with most of the Japanese population interned within months. Detainees were only allowed to keep what they could carry with them in the assembly centers. For my grandmother, this meant she could carry her baby (my uncle) and baby supplies. Conditions in the camps were harsh. Each family was assigned only a room, and all adults were forced to work—primarily to build war supplies—for abysmal pay.
Only at the war’s end, three years later, were Japanese Americans released from the camps. Many of them were unable to recover their possession, homes, or companies. The luckier ones had white friends who agreed to care for houses, farms and businesses in their absence. “Others who couldn’t pay their mortgage, couldn’t pay their bills, they lost everything. So they had to pretty much start from scratch,” said Rosalyn Tonai, 56, executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco.
The conditions they returned to were much worse than those they had left. By 1947, half of the detained population was back home, but they faced increased discrimination, and weren’t compensated for their losses, which included farmland. With limited opportunities, they often had to resort to inadequate housing and employment below their education level.
The consequences of the internment were felt for years. Generations to come were deprived of the wealth their ancestors had legally built, purely on the basis of racial discrimination. A congressional commission formed in 1980 blamed the incarceration on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Today, 75 years later, as America once again faces scrutiny for discriminating against a minority, the Japanese internment camps stand as a reminder of the importance of stopping xenophobia before it spirals out of control.