On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order that sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps for the remainder of World War II.
Now three Asian-American members of Congress are trying to ensure that something like that never happens again.
US Sens. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, along with US Rep. Mark Takano of California – all Democrats – have introduced a bill that would bar Americans from being forcibly incarcerated based on their race or religion.
The Korematsu-Takai Civil Liberties Protection Act of 2019 is necessary to safeguard individual freedoms, especially at a time when President Donald Trump has made divisive comments about Muslims and other marginalized groups, Hirono said in a statement.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Duckworth added, “This important legislation would recognize the horrors faced by thousands of Japanese Americans as prisoners within our own borders by enacting new civil liberties protections and strengthening our resolve to ensure such a national travesty never happens again.”
The bill was originally introduced in 2017 but died in committee. At least 12 other Democratic senators have backed the new bill.
Takano believes Trump’s policies are motivated by similar discriminatory sentiments that spurred Roosevelt’s order two months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, when many Americans were distrustful of those of Japanese ancestry.
“(Trump) showed very shallow knowledge of history by suggesting that maybe it was a correct thing to do to intern Japanese-Americans,” Takano said. “The anti-refugee rhetoric that he has described on the campaign and has continued to use in his presidency made it clear to me that he has a set a tone in this country of intolerance.”
Takano believes the bill will pass now that the Democrats control the House, though he said this should not be a partisan issue.
“It has to do with vulnerable minorities being protected from any kind of hysteria that’s worked by a demagogic political leader,” he said. “This is a very important piece of legislation that has been long overdue.”
When the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries last June, it also finally overturned a 1944 Supreme Court decision that ruled the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II was constitutional.
“The exclusion order was rooted in dangerous stereotypes about a particular group’s supposed inability to assimilate and desire to harm the United States,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the court’s dissent.
The Korematsu-Takai Civil Liberties Protection Act is named after Fred Korematsu, an American citizen who challenged the constitutionality of the internment of Japanese Americans all the way to the Supreme Court, and the late Rep. Mark Takai, a Hawaii congressman who worked to spread awareness of the issue.
Karen Korematsu, executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, commended the new proposed legislation.
“This year marks my father’s 100th birthday and the 75th anniversary of Korematsu v. United States decision. At these milestones, it is a reminder that we must ‘Stand Up For What is Right’ and ‘Stop Repeating History’ by enacting a law that will ensure what happened to my father and 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry can never be done to anyone again in the US,” she said in a statement.
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for the government’s actions toward those of Japanese ancestry during World War II and gave $20,000 to each surviving internee.