Consequences of Family Separation… A Lesson from the Incarceration of Japanese Americans
by Floyd Cheung, Smith College. Posted September 25, 2018.
Much of the media coverage of the current separations at the U.S.-Mexico border is about the trauma inflicted on the children, and rightly so. The incarceration of children deserves serious public scrutiny. Most of us agree that stress endured by children now will lead to depression and other negative consequences the rest of their lives.
But historical precedents teach us that family separation deeply affects parents also. During the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the FBI rounded up about 5,500 leaders of Japanese American communities. All arrested were men. Many were fathers separated from their wives and children. The experience of these Japanese American fathers – and, to a different extent, mothers – from the 1940s remind us that parents, too, suffer damage.
Japanese Americans were ordered to assembly centers prior to their removal to remote internment camps. Photo: Library of Congress.
Parents and their children, like the seven-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, the eventual author of Farewell to Manzanar, suffered from government-enforced separation. Jeanne, the rest of her family, and about 120,000 other Japanese Americans spent years in euphemistically named “relocation centers,” while her father and others served time in Department of Justice internment camps.
Picked up on suspicion of signaling enemy ships (he was a fisherman), Jeanne’s father was never charged though he and many others spent months in federal custody. When he was released and allowed to rejoin his family behind the barbed wire of Manzanar Relocation Center, he returned a broken man. Before his arrest he was full of dignity, according to Jeanne. Afterwards, he turned to abusing alcohol and his family.
Jeanne recounts the following scene: When the war ends and they are permitted to leave, Jeanne’s father refuses to board a bus and instead buys a used car. He shows up with a half-empty bottle of whiskey between his legs and bullies his wife and kids into taking a joy ride with him. Jeanne recounts the event with graphic language: “He stomped the pedal, pushing the speedometer up to thirty-five. His right front tire had shredded and it flopped like a mangled arm. It lashed out, upending a garbage can. I started to cry. Chizu, her calm shattered, was yelling at him to slow down. Mama was too, and May was screaming.”
We are never told what happened to Jeanne’s father during his separation from the family, but we do learn some of the consequences. Regarding her mother, Jeanne notices her “staring at things I could never see.”
Mess hall line up at Manzanar Internment Camp. Photo: Library of Congress.
Most of us know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, despite his many other laudable actions, signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which ordered the incarceration of all Japanese Americans living on the west coast. Thanks to historian Greg Robinson, author of By Order of the President, some of us know that as early as 1936, FDR ordered that suspicious Japanese Americans “should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.” The compilation of such lists along with census data containing names and addresses made it possible for the FBI to conduct round-ups immediately after Pearl Harbor.
Some Japanese American men were taken away from their families not during this initial round-up but after they refused to be drafted.
Heart Mountain resisters in federal court appearance June 12, 1044.
Initially, Japanese Americans were not allowed to volunteer to join the US Army, but later the government changed its mind. Many were glad to have the opportunity to prove their loyalty. The 9,486 Purple Hearts earned by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese American unit, are well known.
Less well known are the stories of those who resisted the draft. Disgusted with a government that would incarcerate them and their families without charge or trial, a few hundred men were charged with the crime of refusing to report for induction when duly ordered to do so under the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940.
One draft resister, Itaru Ina, spent time in a Department of Justice internment camp at Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, North Dakota, while the rest of his family was in Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. In his notebook he wrote poems complaining of the country that had treated him and his people so unfairly. (The United States did not round up Italian Americans and German Americans without trial, even though their countries of origin also were enemy powers.) Eventually he rejoined his family in a prison retrofitted to accept families in Crystal City, Texas, but he recorded the following:
who’s already forgotten me—
I make her call me “father.”
The Trump administration has agreed to reunite families separated at the border, but this process has been much too slow. Consider the consequences of imprisonment and separation for both the children and parents. Consider the consequences when our history of unfair treatment of immigrants and their descendants is recast or lost. We must learn from past experience to avoid present and future harm.