The GOP may be up in arms over AOC’s calling migrant detention centers “concentration camps.” But what do you call it when kids are literally being held in WWII-era Japanese internment camps?
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Some horrors hit quickly, with the force of panic. Others hit slowly, then all at once. The U.S. internment of migrant children has been both of those, over the past year. Last summer, when the news hit, there was widespread panic and outrage. After a few process changes—indefinite detention of children, formerly against the law, was legalized specifically so that children could stay in camps with their parents forever; this was not an improvement—the public interest largely died down.
But the actual horror never ended. Not only are many children still separated from their parents, but the conditions for those in detention are also steadily worsening by the day. And just this Monday, Trump started muttering vague threats about deporting “millions” of undocumented immigrants as early as next week. So that would seem to be how we find ourselves here, in 2019, almost exactly a year after the family separation crisis first hit, learning that children kidnapped by the state will be living in Fort Sill, a World War II–era Japanese internment camp.
The Japanese internment camps are a lingering shame, one that American educators often bypass. During World War II, all Japanese-Americans were required to register with the government, and over 110,000 were interned. There was no reason to do this, no evidence these people were dangerous or even affiliated with Japan in any way; the majority were second- or third-generation Americans, and multiracial people with any degree of Japanese ancestry were included because, in the words of one colonel, “a Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.” The U.S. government, and white people at large, believed that Asian Americans could never truly assimilate, they would always be foreigners, and therefore, anyone with a Japanese grandparent or great-grandparent should be presumed to be an agent of the Japanese state.
People died in the camps: Casualties reached 1,862, many from the awful conditions at the facilities, where the unsanitary food gave people salmonella, and malaria, tuberculosis, and other contagious diseases swept through like hurricanes. American culture has minimized the horror in the ensuing decades. But if Japanese internment is mentioned at all in the 21st century, it’s usually as a “never again” moment, a barbaric scene from a barbaric past.
Well: Here we are. We’re not just putting people in camps on the basis of their race, we’re putting them in the same camps. These people are children. And, in part because of the prisoners’ ages, these camps are even worse, even crueler, and even more dangerous.
We know, already, about how physically and psychologically dangerous adult detention centers are for young children—largely because of the same dangers detained Japanese-Americans faced, the rapid spread of illness in a small, crowded space, and the lack of individual attention or medical care. Five children have already died in U.S. custody, including, most famously, Jakelin Caal, who was separated from her father overnight in an adult cell, and whose father pleaded with Border Patrol agents to notice that she looked sick.
When children are separated from their parents—as many still are—then even leaving the detention center isn’t safe. Doctors have come forward to complain that they can’t provide separated children with adequate medical care, because there are no parents present to answer questions about their allergies, or vaccinations, or prior medical history. It’s also difficult to provide medical treatment to while working through both a language barrier and trauma, as testified by one doctor, who says he had to puzzle out the symptoms of a 5-year-old girl who could only sob uncontrollably and repeat “Quiero a mi mama.” I want my mama.
It’s hard to know how those of us outside the detention centers can live with this. Last summer, when the news first broke, it seemed we weren’t going to. Protesters barricaded ICE facilities. Immigrant aid organizations like RAICES were flooded with donations. Social media was alight with fury 24 hours a day. I remember walking around with a cold ice block of horror and sorrow in my chest, every day, frantic to find something or anything I could do.
This summer, I walk around more or less normally. But the children have less than ever. The children are worse off than ever. I didn’t fix anything; we didn’t end family separation; the news cycle just moved on. What was a panic now rolls through in flashes. We get news that the children will no longer receive basic education, or even recreation time, in their detention centers. We hear that they are being forcibly drugged and abused, with what one attorney calls “a level of cruel intent I’ve never seen before and a real indifference to the well-being of a child.” We hear when they are being left in vans, sometimes for up to 39 hours, despite the fact that this could kill them; we hear, sometimes, when they die.
We live with it. We lived with it before Trump; children were detained at Fort Sill under Obama, if only briefly. White people lived with the Japanese internment camps, and on some level, we still do, if only by refusing to remember how bad it was: I learned about the camps in middle school, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I knew anyone had died. It seems increasingly likely that this is how the current era will pass into history, one more shame that is politely whitewashed by public school teachers and History Channel documentaries until someone takes it on themselves to do the research.
You can only say “never again” if you remember what happened the first time. You can only stop history from repeating if you understand what that history was. You can only change the history that is unfolding in front of you if you don’t look away from it. We’re a year out from the family separation crisis, and children are still lost, still stolen, still dying. We’re learning to look away, to live with it, and in the process, American history is learning to whitewash those children out.
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