Concentration Camps in the Borderlands

20 September 2019

Selfa Chew’s book Uprooting Community tells the relatively unfamiliar story of Mexico’s participation in the displacement and internment of ethnic Japanese during the Second World War, and the experience of people of Japanese descent across the borderlands and across the Americas. Tocqueville 21 co-editor Jacob Hamburger and intern Claire Holland sat down with Dr. Chew to discuss this history, as well as what it can teach us in contemporary debates over “concentration camps” on the US-Mexico border as well as reparations for past wrongdoings.


Tocqueville 21: Your book focuses on the treatment of not only Japanese-Americans, but also Mexicans of Japanese origin in the border region between the two countries during the Second World War. Since many Americans may not be aware of this episode in the more familiar story of Japanese internment, could you explain briefly how it was that Japanese-Mexicans also became caught in the US government’s wartime policies?


Selfa Chew: In order to understand their effects on people of Japanese descent in the United States, the wartime policies need to be examined in their broader context. At the time of the Second World War, only white people could become naturalized citizens of this country. Japanese immigrants were condemned to be eternal foreigners, vulnerable to immigration proceedings. Ethnic Japanese, on both sides of the border, were considered by the United States government, to be a population that had to be controlled, supervised at all times. Thus, the United States government ordered the eviction of ethnic Japanese from the United States West coast, and requested from the Mexican government to also remove Japanese Mexicans from the Mexican coastal zones and border areas, claiming that this uprooting was required for national security reasons. Although many ethnic Japanese were Mexican citizens, or had resided for a long time in Mexico, the Mexican government compelled them to leave their homes.


The Mexican government complied with the US government’s request claiming their own national security reasons, but the political picture was more complex than just being a good neighbor. President Manuel Ávila Camacho had been elected through fraudulent elections, and was facing widespread disapproval as well as numerous armed insurrections opposing his presidency. In exchange for his collaboration with the United States—which included the trade of natural resources and the Bracero program supplying labor to the United States as well as the uprooting of Japanese and Japanese Mexicans—his government received financial support and military advice, assistance that helped him stay in power. This cross-border displacement continued a series of anti-Asian, racist programs in the United States, and allowed both countries to start a new era of diplomatic and economic relations based on a common perceived internal enemy.


In what ways did the conditions of internment of people of Japanese descent differ on each side of the border?


Persons of Japanese descent who were forced to relocate south of the border were not provided with food, clothing, or medical care. In the Villa Aldama camp in Chihuahua, internees slept outdoors and worked in agricultural fields without adequate food or compensation, while their spouses and children also didn’t receive meals or housing. In Mexico’s interior, Japanese Mexican communities organized their own sustenance systems within the concentration camps, with very poor results due to scant resources. Adding to the emotional stress of having lost affective relations, employment, property, and freedom, material conditions in the camps were very poor—as reported by health inspectors—and internees were under constant surveillance.


Japanese Mexicans suffered great losses, but so did ethnic Japanese living in other countries in the Americas. Canada had its own relocation program, and a group of Latin American states also agreed to the intervention of US agencies to remove ethnic Japanese citizens from their own countries. Some Latin American Japanese were allowed to leave until more than one year after the war ended, since their own countries didn’t accept them back, and were classified as “illegal aliens” in the United States.  . The Crystal City camp held a large number of Latin American detainees who, at the conclusion of the war, were transferred to Seabrook Farms in New Jersey, a business that functioned as a guarantor for their release. Japanese lived and worked in the farms in conditions that resembled those of the internment camps, highly supervised and with meager pay. These individuals were effectively rendered stateless, and they were not regularized until 1952.


In the United States, Japanese, Japanese Americans, and Latin American Japanese were practically kidnapped from their homes and transported as “illegal aliens” into concentration camps. Among the Latin American Japanese incarcerated in the US were some ethnic Japanese who were Mexican nationals and legal residents of Mexico. These people also lost their freedom, farms, houses, employment, education, and connection with members of their families.


The treatment of Japanese in Mexico was more severe than in the United States because the government took care of basic needs of the internees held in US camps, such as food and shelter; however, the camps were not always constructed with adequate materials to render the housing units comfortable in all weather conditions. Sleeping and sanitary facilities were also overcrowded, depriving internees of their privacy. And unsurprisingly, there was little regard for Japanese culture in terms of food and other elements of daily life,  and the presence of guards and barbed wire provided a demoralizing reminder of their captivity. Japanese American internees were presented with a “loyalty questionnaire” which determined their eligibility to leave the camp. Some Nisei (children of Japanese immigrants) refused to swear “unqualified allegiance to the United States,” both out of genuine conviction, and in order to avoid separation from their Japanese parents.


If the conditions of today’s detention centers in the US are far from optimal, we see that as in the 1940s, conditions for asylum seekers sent to Mexico as part of the “Migrant Protection Protocols” are often far worse. One lesson we might seek to draw from that period is that sending foreigners deemed a “security risk” to Mexico doesn’t represent a solution.


Your book also deals extensively with the harm done to Japanese communities in both countries beyond the immediate experience of internment itself—particularly on families, women, and children. Can you explain the long-term effects of internment on the people affected?


From the start, Japanese Mexican individuals and families suffered material losses when they had to leave and forfeit their houses, businesses, land, and other property. Due to their inability to provide for their families, and the harsh decisions they had to make between remaining in Mexico, entering concentration camps in the United States, or leaving for Japan, their communal unity was broken, often permanently. Without financial means, returning to their homes at the end of the war was difficult, as was their ability to resume their businesses or previous employment. In many cases, their health suffered due to stress and a lack of adequate medical care. We know today that the abrupt interruption of normal childhood activities, such as attending school with a consistent group of classmates and teachers or interacting regularly with neighbors and friends, causes life-long anxieties. What’s more, the trauma of losing one or both parents has lasted across generations. The language used to refer to the internment program has also deferred healing, as it masks the depth of the damage done to Japanese American communities, beyond the suspension of their civil rights—not to mention the damage to democracy itself.


What forms of resistance did people adopt in communities affected by the US government’s policies towards those of Japanese descent?


In Mexico, unions, neighbors, friends, and relatives of those targeted by the relocation program wrote official requests to allow members of their communities to remain with them, sometimes with hundreds of signatures. Often, the letters had tender, humanizing descriptions of the immigrants. Some Japanese Mexican men also went into hiding in the mountains. Wealthy individuals were able to use their connections with politicians to stay in their homes, and the governor of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Rodolfo T. Loaiza, protected Japanese Mexicans by deferring their relocation for several months and, in some cases, for the duration of the war. I was not able to identify the same response in the United States. Statements by some religious or civil rights groups were formulated in a more impersonal manner.


Since this summer, there’s been a sustained controversy over whether or not it is appropriate to describe immigrant detention facilities—whether on the US-Mexico border or in the American interior—as “concentration camps.” In your book, you use this term to describe the internment facilities during the Second World War. How should we think about what qualifies a form of detention as a “concentration camp”? Does this term refer to the conditions in a camp? How people are selected for detention? Where camps are located or how they are seen by the public? The current controversies are ultimately historical controversies, and so how can the experience of Japanese internment help us work towards an answer?


Japanese, Japanese Americans, and Japanese Latin Americans were incarcerated in concentration camps. The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of the verb “concentrate”  is “to bring or come together in a large number or amount in one particular area.” In my view, it is not a question of how individuals are selected for the camps, their conditions or the location. It is about the act of selecting a group, forcing its members to live in a detention center, and separating them from their constitutional rights for an unknown period of time.


When a state decides to suspend the civil rights of a social group with specific characteristics, exercising its power to concentrate individuals who were previously living freely and in different areas, then a term for the site in which they live under total control of the camp authorities is “concentration camp. Concentration may or may not lead to “death camps,” as was the case with the Nazi camps. Of course, the term “concentration camps” evokes a comparison between the treatment of Japanese in the US and that of Jews, and other victims of the Nazi regime. For this reason, people often use the softer term “internment.” However, in the end, we should take note of the procedures to select, transport, and detain in order to find the right language. Ethnic Japanese were confined, imprisoned, and emotionally abused not because they committed any crime, but solely because of their ethnicity.


Uprooting Community also details how the American press worked to characterize Japanese Mexicans and Americans alike as “enemy aliens,” helping to legitimize their treatment at the hands of the US government. Do you see parallels here with contemporary discussions of migrants transiting through Mexico to reach the US?


Definitely. In the United States and Mexico, Asians in general have been portrayed as essentially deviant. They were described as carriers of disease and moral decay—backstabbing people who spoke ugly languages. During the Mexican Revolution, hundreds of Asian immigrants, most of them Chinese, were killed in a single night in 1911 in Torreón. Later, northern state governments sponsored, or at least ignored, the armed crowds that chased ethnic Chinese out of town, into the United States, where they would be arrested by immigration officers and deported to China. The “yellow peril” has populated the Mexican and American imaginary for generations. One need look no further than the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to see how Asian communities were defined as undesirable in the United States. Anti-Asian rhetoric resulted in the formulation of the California Alien Land Law in 1913. It did not contain racist language, but prohibited persons ineligible for naturalization from owning land, with the intention of preventing Japanese immigrants from establishing their own farms. The Second World War provided fertile ground for this sort of rhetoric against the Japanese.


One major obvious difference between today’s immigrant detention regime and the internment of Japanese during the war is that large numbers of the latter were American citizens, and as many survivors and their descendants have long emphasized, considered themselves to be loyal American patriots. How have the notions of citizenship and patriotism evolved in American discourse since the period you’ve studied? How do you believe we should understand them in the present, in light of our history?


Undoubtedly, notions of citizenship and patriotism continue to be attached to racial classifications. Both are usually questioned when the individuals in question are non-white. As mentioned before, during the Second World War, suspicion fell on all ethnic Japanese, regardless of their citizenship status, to a far greater extent than in the case of German Americans or Italian Americans.


It is worth pointing out, though, that like Japanese Americans during this period, many Mexican American citizens of the United States today have been arrested, detained in camps, and, threatened with deportation, while others have found out that their passports have been revoked, or their applications denied. Many children born in the United States have been separated from their parents, without any provisions made for their care by the authorities who detained them. And of course, many American citizens face verbal attacks when speaking Spanish, a language assumed to be spoken only by foreigners. Undocumented veterans have also been deported, after they served the only country they knew, believing they had secured their naturalization through military service. We are supposed to know that membership in a community or loyalty to a country, should not be determined by our place of birth, by our skin color, or the language we speak. Nevertheless, too often whiteness is equated with citizenship, and citizenship with whiteness. As a result many people who are citizens are treated as if they’re not, while non-citizens engage in acts of profound patriotism and are not rewarded for them.


Japanese internment is one of the rare events in US history for which the federal government has made an official apology and offered reparation payments to survivors—another practice that has become a major issue in our politics, especially since many have called for reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. To what extent did President Reagan’s actions in the late 1980s work to heal the harm done to victims of Japanese internment, both in the US and in Mexico? What other actions can governments and citizens take to restore justice after a historical wrong of this scale has been committed?


I can’t speak for the entire Japanese American and Japanese Mexican communities. However, the communal trauma caused by internment is still present. Many books have been published by former internees about the internal exile and internment programs—such as Seiichi Higashide’s Adios to Tears and the participants in Arthur Hansen’s oral history Barbed Voices—reporting on the lasting suffering of the individuals incarcerated in the camps. The establishment of detention camps today has triggered painful memories, and some Japanese Americans have publicly protested the incarceration of asylum seekers and other immigrants, as well as family separation. Same goes for Jewish and Native Americans, other communities forced to enter camps.


The formal apology and reparation payments recognized the damage done, but they weren’t enough. Reparations didn’t actually reach all the victims of internment, as many had already died, and others had left the United States by the time they were enacted. Furthermore, Japanese Latin Americans held in the United States beyond the end of WWII only received a portion of the payment offered to Japanese Americans. Japanese Mexicans received no compensation at all. They were not mentioned in the US apology, and the Mexican government has not even recognized that Japanese Mexicans were hurt in any way by the relocation program.


Finally, these apologies ring empty today when similar injustices are taking place. As Congress put it in its original apology, “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” are resulting in concentration camps. Beyond apologies and adequate compensation for all victims, we have the responsibility to educate ourselves to keep the memory of past wrongs alive so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. We can’t change the past, but we can make sure we will not have to apologize in the future.


Photo Credit: OSU Special Collections & Archives, Barracks from Japanese American Internment Camp, via Flickr, Public Domain.


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1 Comment

  • Rod Tatsuno says:

    War is hell…but “peace time” can also affect those who are wronged.

    I spent my initial years of life behind barbed wire, but the effects were long lasting. My father, Dave M. Tatsuno, recorded a minor portion of life in the Sevier desert with this smuggled in camera in his film Topaz. I still can recall the lush green grass, the cold waters of a clear running brook and my first taste of raspberries fresh picked off a vine in Springville, Utah following our release. But I had yet to face the physical and verbal attacks of children that had lost fathers, uncles and older brothers during the Pacific war.

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