Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The lessons of Manzanar should be heeded today

By Jeanette Arnquist
Director, Ministry of Life, Dignity and Justice

Even though I had spent most of my elementary school years in California, I had not heard of Manzanar until a friend in graduate school told me of his family’s experience there. At first I didn’t believe him. I did not believe that the United States would forcibly confine Japanese immigrants and native born US citizens of Japanese descent in the middle of the 20th century.

Manzanar is located in the Owens valley, about 250 miles from Los Angeles. Early in 1942 the United States government began to forcibly remove its Japanese residents and citizens of Japanese descent from their homes, their jobs and businesses. They were moved to what we now recognize as concentration camps. Manzanar was one of 10 such camps.

The people being moved lost everything. They were housed in quickly constructed barracks that lacked insulation and privacy. Each family got a room about the size of a 2 car garage. The camps were self sufficient, and offered services such as barber shops, laundry and hospitals. Meals were eaten in mess halls. Bathroom facilities were primitive. There was no air conditioning and whatever heat they had failed to adequately combat the winter winds.

In 1945 the camps were closed and the prisoners were allowed to return home, however, most of them had lost everything and had to start life over again. (You can learn much more with a quick Internet search.)

How could this happen? How could our parents and grandparents have sat back and watched their neighbors disappear? The answer is fear. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, every Japanese or Japanese appearing person – termed the “yellow menace” - was considered too dangerous to be living in cities or towns.

Most of us felt intense fear on September 11, 2001 as we learned of the attacks and watched the horrifying images again and again. As a result of that fear, we went to war in Afghanistan and it seems that we also went to war with immigrants living in our own country.

Since 2001, the annual number of persons deported for immigration violations has doubled, raising to nearly 400,000. Sometimes a workplace is raided and many people are deported at once. Others are picked up at check points. I was moved by the story of police stopping a car because a crucifix hanging from the rear view mirror “obstructed the view.” The driver was an unauthorized immigrant so he was deported.

For the most part, those who are deported lose everything. Some are actually paying a mortgage on a house, which they lose when the payments stop. Others have less, perhaps an old car and some furniture and clothing. When they arrive back in their country of origin, they are usually destitute.

The correct term for immigrants who are here without proper documents is “unauthorized.” Most of them do possess some documents, so they are not really undocumented. The term “illegal,” which is most often used, plays on fear. It creates an image of someone who is involved in crime, someone from whom we need protection. In the interest of public safety, some say, we should rid our society of the illegals. Just like the “yellow menace.”

How can we allow history to repeat itself?

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