Donald Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US in the wake of the terror attack in San Bernardino, California, last week has been roundly criticised by many political figures across the ideological spectrum.
Some critics immediately denounced his plan as “fascist.” But Trump’s proposal actually mirrors similar US race-based immigration laws from the early 20th century.
The first major immigration restriction passed in the US in 1882, halting Chinese immigration and barring naturalization for Chinese immigrants. At the time, xenophobic fears grew that Asians immigrants were, as Asian-American historian Erika Lee describes it, “unassimilable.”
“In the early 20th century, [Asian immigrants] were considered unassimilable aliens,” said Lee, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota.
“Meaning that they were so different from Americans that they could never assimilate and that they were a danger to the US, that they were economic competition, that they were another racial problem, they were a potential invasion coming to do us harm in terms of lowering the wages of working class families, luring white women into depravity.”
Animosity and suspicion of Asian immigrants continued to brew until in 1924, when Congress passed the Immigration Act. In effect, the law barred all Asians — including the addition of Japanese and Southern and Eastern Europeans, who Lee said were considered “a lesser kind of white” — from coming to the US and becoming citizens.
The act included a provision excluding anyone ineligible for citizenship from entering the US. According to the Library of Congress, people of Asian lineage were not permitted to become naturalized under existing law, so the Immigration Act meant that Asians would no longer be admitted to the United States.
Indeed, Trump’s proposal for excluding Muslim immigrants has eerie parallels to the US policy toward Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II and the lead-up to the war.
State Rep. Al Baldasaro (R), a co-chair of the Trump campaign’s New Hampshire veterans coalition, defended Trump’s proposal during an interview with WMUR. He cited the federal government’s decision to forcefully quarantine more than 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans living in the US to “internment” camps for more than three years during World War II.
“What he’s saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps,” Baldasaro told the station. “The people who attacked innocent people in Paris came through open borders. From a military mind standpoint, all Donald Trump is saying is to do what needs to be done until we get a handle on how to do background checks.”
Former President Franklin Roosevelt’s internment order is largely regarded as one of the greatest civil-liberties violations ever perpetrated by the federal government on its citizens.
Once internment orders were issued beginning in 1942, Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were given one week to report to designated areas, where they were subsequently brought by bus to hastily assembled camps.
Conditions at the camps were brutal. Japanese-Americans slept in overcrowded, converted barracks and horse stalls with no running water. Families were divided by small, makeshift partitions. Many of the largest camps were situated on vast stretches of desert, where detainees were subject to intense dust storms and harsh temperatures.
While children attended school and some adults had jobs, other formerly employed adults languished behind barbed wire, with few meaningful tasks to accomplish.
The effects of interment lingered for years after the Japanese were released from the camps. Internment resulted in the widespread loss of assets, which included homes, businesses, cars, and boats. Some found that white residents had taken over the jobs and small industries where Japanese workers formerly prospered, and were forced to find new, less glamorous forms of work.
Former residents in some cases returned to find entire communities — like Terminal Island, once made up of around 3,000 Japanese — completely demolished. Lee, the University of Minnesota professor, said Japanese-Americans were told to “disperse” themselves so not to be seen as a racial threat. She said they were also told not to return home to the West Coast, were the vast majority had settled before the war.
It also helped perpetuate widespread discrimination of Japanese-Americans that lasted for years after the end of the war.
“We know instance after instance of violence, of beating up, of discrimination, housing discrimination,” Lee said. “It took generations — and one could argue that those scars are still being healed.”
After years of lobbying by Japanese-American lawmakers, former President George H. W. Bush penned a formal apology in conjunction with the federal-government’s reparations payments to Japanese-Americans in 1991, saying the US should “recognise that serious injustices were done.”
“A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals,” Bush said. “We can never fully right the wrongs of the past, but we can take a clear stand for justice and recognise that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during WW II.”
But Baldasaro isn’t the first politician in this election cycle to attempt to spin Japanese internment as a positive. The Democratic mayor of one of Virginia’s largest cities was forced to apologise last month after saying he’d refuse to provide resettlement assistance to Syrian refugees, citing Japanese internment during World War II as partial inspiration.
On Tuesday, Trump denied that his suggestions were akin to putting Japanese-Americans and immigrants behind barbed wire during World War II. He instead floated several “temporary measures” akin to restrictions places on Italian, Japanese, and Germans living in the US during World War II as an alternative.
“They stripped them of their naturalization proceedings. They went through a whole list of things,” Trump told ABC. “They couldn’t go five miles from their homes. They weren’t allowed to use radios, flashlights. I mean, take a look at what FDR did many years ago, and he’s respected by most people.”
When asked by Time magazine whether he would have supported internment camps, Trump said that he “would have had to be there at the time” to answer the hypothetical.
“I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” Trump said, according to the publication. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”
Experts say that Trump’s comments are historically inaccurate.
“To compare this to internment is not only wrong, but it completely misrepresents history and the facts of the time,” Lee said. “What is similar is the racial hysteria that existed after Pearl Harbour and exists today.”
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