One of the darkest periods in American history was thrown into stark relief in recent days after a surrogate to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said a proposal for a Muslim immigrant registry had precedent in the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans.
Citing the 1942-1946 forced relocation of Americans of Japanese descent into what effectively amounted to concentration camps as a legal precedent, Carl Higbie, a former spokesman for the pro-Trump Great America PAC, said that a registry of immigrants from Muslim nations deemed terrorist havens would “hold constitutional muster.”
Higbie was referring to a proposal by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, reportedly a member of Trump’s transition team, that would reinstate a George W. Bush-era registry for immigrants from Muslim nations.
“To be perfectly honest, it is legal, they say it will hold constitutional muster. I know the ACLU will challenge it, but I think it will pass, and we’ve done it with Iran back a while ago, we did it during World War II with Japanese,” Higbie, a former Navy SEAL, said during an appearance Wednesday on the Fox News television show “The Kelly File.”
When asked by the show’s host, Megyn Kelly, if he was proposing a return to “the days of internment camps,” Higbie denied that was the case and brushed away rights concerns.
“We need to protect America first,” he said.
Speaking to The New York Times a day later, Higbie stood by his remarks, while also noting that he “fundamentally” disagreed with “the internment camp mantra and doing it at all.”
“There is historical, factual precedent to do things that are not politically popular and sometimes not right, in the interest of national security,” he said.
The Trump transition team has denied that he ever advocated for a registry, but last year, in response to a reporter’s question, Trump said he would “certainly implement” a database on all Muslims living in the U.S.
Higbie’s remarks have triggered an outcry, with many Japanese-American leaders and their allies lining up to tear into the Trump camp for even the thought of pursuing such a registry.
Outgoing California Rep. Mike Honda, who has been outspoken in his support of the rights of Muslim Americans, blasted the remarks as “cowardly” and “hateful.”
“These remarks from a surrogate for President-elect Trump are beyond disturbing … (they are) cowardly, hateful, and unconscionable,” Honda said in a statement Thursday.
“Attempting to justify the President-elect’s irrational proposal, Mr. Higbie’s use of internment as a legal precedent is inexcusable,” he added.
Honda was an infant when he was forcibly imprisoned with his family in 1942 at the Amache internment camp in Colorado, where they spent the next three years living behind barbed-wire fencing, watched by armed guards.
His family was among the more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were relocated and incarcerated for years following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in the history of the United States.
Honda was echoed by a deluge of condemnations from like-minded lawmakers in Congress.
“The imprisonment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, including my parents and grandparents, is widely understood to be one of the darkest chapters in American history,” said Rep. Mark Takano, also of California. “I am horrified that people connected to the incoming administration are using my family’s experience as a precedent for what President-elect Trump could do.”
California Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono and others also issued scathing rebukes of Higbie’s remarks.
But his comments on the internment were far from the first to emerge from the Trump campaign since its march to the White House began last year.
Last December, after Trump first called for a ban on all Muslims to the United States, New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Trump adviser on veterans’ issues, voiced similar views.
“What he’s saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps,” Baldasaro, a U.S. Marine veteran, was quoted as saying by local media.
The report came the same month that Trump himself said in an interview that he might have backed the internment of Japanese-Americans.
“I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he told Time magazine. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”
On Sunday, Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that while the president-elect’s team is not planning to create a Muslim registry, it would not rule anything out.
Any move to create a registry could be based on the precedent left by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1944 decision in the Korematsu v. United States case — which focused on the constitutionality of the presidential order that forced Japanese-Americans into the camps.
Although the ruling has been widely panned as one of the court’s most shameful decisions, activists say there is need for concern in today’s charged atmosphere.
The decision, in which the court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional, has never been formally overturned, leaving the door open to potential future applications of the precedent.
“Once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens,” Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in his dissent in the case.
“The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need,” he added.
While Jackson’s fears of a “loaded weapon” have not materialized in the 72 years since the decision — and while most legal scholars believe the ruling has been thoroughly discredited — some officials, including late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, have voiced concern that an internment-like event could happen again in a time of conflict.
“You are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again,” Scalia told students at the University of Hawaii law school in 2014, citing a Latin expression meaning “In times of war, the laws fall silent.”
This could be especially true now that the last survivors of the internment ordeal are succumbing to old age, bringing the danger that the collective memory of the event will fade.
“While certainly not as well known as it could be, the World War II forced removal and incarceration of Japanese-Americans is also far from forgotten,” said Brian Niiya, content director at Densho, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that collects video oral histories and documents regarding the internment.
“That said, it is true that many still don’t know about this history,” Niiya said. “Part of this is no doubt due to a general lack of interest in history by many Americans.”
What’s more, said Niiya, Japanese-Americans themselves had also for many years kept the story hidden and embraced the “model minority” concept — a stereotype that many still hold today about Japanese-Americans and Asian-Americans in general. For a long period, he said, the story was also not covered in American history textbooks, though that has largely changed in recent years.
“The Japanese-American issei and nisei didn’t talk about it,” said Jim Tabuchi, 53, of Sacramento California, whose mother was interned at the Tule Lake Camp in the state. “Their motto was gaman, which loosely translated means ‘endure.’ So they went on their way and endured the pain and suffering of the injustice without ever mentioning it, even to their children and grandchildren.
“Many went to their graves never talking about the experience because it was too painful or shameful to relive,” he added.
But with the Trump camp’s seeming refusal to rule out the possibility of a Muslim registry, opponents of such a measure say the need to talk about the dark history of the internment has grown substantially.
“There is a creeping danger that the precedent could repeat itself against Muslim-Americans,” said Tabuchi. “What were the key ingredients that were present during World War II, and do those ingredients exist today? Is there wartime hysteria? Check. Is there an aligned executive, legislative, judicial branch? Soon to be check. Is a large faction of the public willing to sacrifice the rights of the individual for what they believe to be the security of themselves? Check. Is nobody around or willing to stand up for the rights of the minority? Not check! I believe that there are enough people who would protest, file suits, provide safe havens to those who are persecuted.”
Still, despite Tabuchi’s optimism, he appeared hesitant to rule out the possibility completely.
“Will it be enough?” he asked.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.