In the spirit of using the Thanksgiving holiday as a chance for reflection about what is good in our country—and what we can do better—I’d like to share a thoughtful letter penned by Grace Kubota Ybarra, a Japanese-American woman who was imprisoned as a toddler in an American internment camp (emphasis added):
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, I was sent to the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming as part of this country’s guttural reaction to the attack. At that time, I was an American citizen, age 11/2.
My uncle was awarded the Purple Heart as a veteran of the Army’s 442nd Infantry Regiment, an almost entirely Japanese American combat unit. My father was imprisoned at the U.S. penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., when he and the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee raised the issue of the constitutionality of drafting Japanese American men from the concentration camps to serve in the United States armed forces. My first memory as a child was being told not to cross the barbed-wire fence because we would be shot.
There was palpable fear and hatred of Americans of Japanese ancestry in 1942. And it is happening again with the call to close our borders to the Syrian refugees, and the mayor of Roanoke, Va., calling for concentration camps like those created by the government during World War II. Is history repeating itself? Where is our humanity? Have we learned nothing in the last 70 years?
Her memories of the camp are newly relevant, of course, thanks to the recent positive invocation of those camps in connection to Syrian refugees by the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia. After much uproar, that mayor apologized for his remarks, but the broader attitude of fear and suspicion toward refugees remains.
At its worst, this attitude looks like politicians proposing all sorts of draconian, big-government measures to spy on and restrict the movement of refugees and even American Muslims.
More often, among people not seeking the Oval Office, it consists of understandable but misinformed concerns about the statistically minuscule chance of terrorist attacks by refugees, as well as the length and thoroughness of the refugee vetting process.
Since the debate over whether to accept more refugees began in the wake of the Paris attacks, many (myself included) have drawn comparisons between the current situation and Americans’ rejection of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. The analogy is far from exact, but it gives good reason to consider whether a hardline stance against refugees may well repeat the mistakes of the past.
So too, Grace Kubota Ybarra’s letter should make us think: 70 years from now, do we want to be hearing stories from a generation of Muslims who grew under Big Brother government that is (hopefully, by then) unthinkable?