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

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 stroudjournalism<at>gmail.com.
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