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The Prison Complex

Wednesday, Feb 19, 2014, 11:27 am

‘An unprincipled fortress on a hill’: ACLU on why WWII internment camps are still relevant today

By Matt Stroud

Today is the 71st anniversary of the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered Japanese immigrants into prison camps during World War II. In remembrance of that day, Carl Takei, a Staff Attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project, has written a short post for The Prison Complex about his and others’ efforts to end racial injustices in the U.S. prison system. That post is below.

Today is the Day of Remembrance: seventy-one years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized military officials to “evacuate” from their homes some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry (nearly two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens) and “relocate” these men, women, and children to desolate prison camps scattered all the way from Arkansas to California.

During the war, my grandfather served in a racially segregated U.S. Army artillery unit. Scouts from his battalion were among those who liberated survivors of the Nazi death camp at Dachau. But while my grandfather fought in Europe, my grandmother waited for him in an American concentration camp.

With these stories, I grew up with a visceral sense not only of the fragility of our constitutional rights, but also how profound a deprivation of liberty it is to be taken from one’s home and encircled by guards and barbed wire.

That awareness is a significant part of why I chose to fight for the rights of prisoners, immigration detainees, and other people deprived of their liberty in the United States.

The challenges are significant: America is in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic of mass incarceration, and an obsession with immigration enforcement has resulted in a militarized border and the detention and deportation of unprecedented numbers of immigrants.

And these challenges transcend my own experience. After all, this Day of Remembrance is not just about the 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into prison camps, mass incarceration is not just about the 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails today, and the need for immigration reform is not just about the more than 400,000 immigrants who experience our immigration detention facilities every year.

These injustices force us to ask what America stands for: Are we a nation bound together by universal rights and principles rather than tribalism? Or are we are just an unprincipled fortress on a hill that will not hesitate to mistreat its own citizens based on their race and ethnicity, become the biggest jailer in the world, and criminalize people who came here to build a better life for their families?

Today’s anniversary is a chance to consider these questions, and decide what each of us can do to make our institutions -- from the county jail to Congress -- truly live up to the promise of a nation that is just, equal, and secures “the Blessings of Liberty” for us all, now and in the future.

For more information on the ACLU's National Prison Project, go here.

Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalismgmail.com.

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