Talk of a registry for Muslims has Japanese internment survivors asking: 'Can’t they see what’s wrong?'

Helen Yasuda knows what it’s like to be under suspicion in America. 

Yasuda was just a 10- or 11-year-old girl when she was sent to internment camps  in Arkansas. Her family was among the more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent who were forcibly removed from their homes by the U.S. government, which feared “espionage” and “sabotage,” during World War II.

So when Yasuda, now 84, hears talk of creating a registry of Muslim and Arab Americans, she can’t help but worry that history is repeating itself.

“Haven’t we learned something?” she said. “Can’t they see what’s wrong?”

Japanese American community activists have long expressed concern about the treatment of Muslims in America, particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some see parallels between the fear and anger sometimes directed at Muslims and the way their families and ancestors were treated during World War II. 

Their anxiety was heightened this week when a Trump supporter told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that creating a national registration list for immigrants from Muslim countries would pass constitutional muster, citing Japanese internment as a precedent. 

“We did it during World War II,” Carl Higbie said, sparking a rebuke from Kelly.

Higbie said he was not proposing new internment camps, but said a national registry would be justified “until we can identify the true threat.” He is the author of “Enemies, Foreign and Domestic: A SEAL’s Story,” and calls himself a Trump supporter on his Twitter page. 

By Thursday, his comments reverberated across Los Angeles County’s Japanese American community — the largest in the nation.  

“If they’re going to do snooping on every person who’s Muslim, it doesn’t make sense,” said Bill Watanabe, 72, who was born in an internment camp and on Thursday gathered with friends and former co-workers at the Little Tokyo Service Center he founded. “There’s no way to tell who’s loyal and disloyal.”

Japanese Americans have been working with Muslim American groups for years, holding panels, screening films and sharing meals, activities meant to educate each other on history and culture, community leaders said.   

“We feel very much that they are experiencing the same kind of discrimination and scapegoating that our community did,” said Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress. “We don’t want them to go through what we went through.”  

Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said he believes that had it not been for Japanese Americans showing support after 9/11, Arabs and Muslims living in America might have been incarcerated. 

Then, as now, those tactics would not have resolved any national security problems, he said. 

“This is simply … using the fear of terrorism and the hysteria that comes from it to suppress a whole population,” Al-Marayati said.

“What these people are saying is they want to take our country back to the days of internment,” he continued. “We all thought we had advanced from that time and left it behind.” 

In one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history, Japanese immigrants and their American-born children from West Coast states were ordered to evacuate their homes and businesses between 1942 and 1945 and were relocated to internment camps in remote, desolate areas, surrounded by barbed wire and guards in watchtowers.

They lost their livelihoods and property in the process. And so after they were released, thousands of families who had already begun new lives in a new land were forced to start over again. 

After years of advocacy work by groups such as Masaoka’s Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, President Reagan signed legislation in 1988 that issued a formal government apology and reparations for the internment. "We admit a wrong," Reagan said. "Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law."

Higbie seemed to defend his remarks on Twitter Thursday morning and blame the media for taking them out of context.

“I advise ppl seeing wrong headlines 2day to hear i said on @megynkelly,” he tweeted. “dishonest media is why @realDonaldTrump won.” 

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) called “abhorrent” any proposal to force Muslims to register with the federal government and use of Japanese American imprisonment as precedent. 

“These ideas are based on tactics of fear, division and hate that we must condemn,” Chu said in a statement. “Like Japanese incarceration, imposing a registry upon American Muslims goes against our constitutional values and our very principles as a nation.”

As a docent at the Japanese American National Museum, Yasuda sees reminders of prejudice and its consequences every time she climbs the stairs to the museum’s core exhibit. 

There are the reconstructed barracks from Wyoming’s Heart Mountain concentration camp, where more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated. 

There’s that salmon-colored campaign poster for Sen. James D. Phelan that reads “Keep California White.”

And there’s the black-and-white photo of dozens of Japanese Americans shuffling into buses at First Street and Central Avenue — a stone’s throw from the floors she walks in the museum.  

“We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes,” Yasuda said. “And this was a tragic mistake.” 


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