‘What happened in World War II is happening again’: Immigrant detention centers through the eyes of a therapist


The metal fence was what she noticed first, miles of tall barrier topped by barbed wire strung across the south Texas pastures — just like the internment camp nearby where she had been held as an infant.

And on the other side of the fence, again, 71-year-old Satsuki Ina saw mothers and children: this time, Central Americans.

“It was like fractured pieces trying to converge — their experience today, my history — being in this place where I had been as a child,” Ina said.


Ina returned to Texas to see firsthand the system the U.S. government has created to handle a surge of immigrant families and children across the southern border, many driven here by violence in Central America.

Her visit was months before terrorist attacks in Paris led some American leaders to suggest interning refugees, before Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said Muslim neighborhoods should be patrolled and Donald Trump said he wanted to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. and build a wall on the Mexican border.

Unlike the internment camps, which were filled with people singled out for their ancestry, the nation’s three family detention centers hold hundreds of adults and children who crossed into the U.S. illegally or are seeking asylum. Still, Ina saw parallels between today and the 1940s, when wartime fears sent Japanese Americans to the camps.

“We've been wanting to remind people of what happened to us and make sure the same hysteria does not overtake the leadership and the communities,” Satsuki Ina said of internment survivors.
“We’ve been wanting to remind people of what happened to us and make sure the same hysteria does not overtake the leadership and the communities,” Satsuki Ina said of internment survivors.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

“We’ve been wanting to remind people of what happened to us and make sure the same hysteria does not overtake the leadership and the communities,” she said of internment survivors, noting that the U.S. government later apologized and paid reparations.

As Ina visited the center in Karnes City, about 100 miles south of Austin, she scrutinized families for signs of trauma she recognized as both a former detainee and a family psychotherapist.



For the record

An earlier version of this article said Ina visited a detention center in Dilley. The center is in Karnes City. She also attended a protest outside a detention center in Dilley.


Mothers were issued identity cards, just as her parents had been. They spoke of eating unfamiliar food at mess halls, living under constant observation and stress, never letting their children leave their sides. In the young mothers she met, Ina saw her own.

Ina had produced two award-winning documentaries on internment, “Children of the Camps” in 1999 and “From a Silk Cocoon” in 2005. Now she was discovering a new story to tell.

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One Salvadoran mother detained for five months tearfully told Ina through an interpreter that her 8-year-old daughter was afraid to sleep and cried for hours whenever children she befriended at the center departed.


Ina asked the girl why she cried. The girl glanced over her shoulder at a female guard before whispering that she feared that the departing children, whose families had fled gangs and violence, were being sent home to their deaths.

Why did she have trouble sleeping, Ina asked? Again, the girl checked that the guard wasn’t listening. Then she said she had been having nightmares about a scary dog — the dog the Border Patrol had used to catch her.

Ina offered the girl a tissue. She refused, withdrawing, her face going blank. The therapist fell back on the Japanese art of origami, quickly folding the tissue into a flower and tying it to the girl’s wrist.

She smiled.

“Time’s up!” the guard shouted, and the girl snapped to attention.

So did Ina.

The parallels, the resonance, the familiarity of the situation was really clear. What happened in World War II is happening again.

— Satsuki Ina

“I recognize that part of her in myself: obeying, of doing what I’m told, of living in fear,” she said. “The parallels, the resonance, the familiarity of the situation was really clear. What happened in World War II is happening again.”


Ina was born at the Tule Lake internment camp near California’s northern border on May 25, 1944.


Her father and mother, Itaru and Shizuko Ina, a bookkeeper and housecleaner, had been newlyweds living in San Francisco for less than a year when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

In 1942 they were among 110,000 Japanese Americans, more than half of them children, sent to internment camps. The couple were held first at Tanforan Assembly Center, a makeshift facility at a San Bruno racetrack, then at the Topaz camp in Utah, where Ina’s brother, Kiyoshi, was born, and then Tule Lake.

Ina’s parents were kibei, U.S. citizens born to immigrants but partly raised in Japan. Once detained, they refused to swear their loyalty to the U.S. They considered it a violation of their rights and instead renounced their U.S. citizenship.

After the war ended, her father was transferred to a camp in North Dakota. Ina, her mother and brother were sent to the Crystal City family internment camp in Texas, where the family eventually reunited.

Ina has only two memories of Crystal City: staring up into her parents’ frightened faces from a Japanese basket, or korii, and later celebrating on a train as they left in July 1946 with just $25 each.

“I remember swinging from the arms, the row of seats on the train; the freedom, knowing we were leaving,” she said.

The family later returned to San Francisco and Ina eventually attended UC Berkeley, protesting during the 1960s — to her parents’ chagrin. Even though their U.S. citizenship had been restored in 1957, they worried that she would face the same backlash they had for speaking out.


Ina wanted to help families like hers who had survived trauma, and pursued degrees as a family therapist, becoming a professor at Cal State Sacramento.

She came to recognize in herself the aftereffects of internment: an easily triggered startle response, extreme vigilance when she was the only person of color in a room and an anxious need for control in the face of uncertainty.

Her father died in 1977, her mother in 2000. Afterward, Ina discovered her mother’s diary, which laid bare the anxiety pervading families in detention.

“I wonder,” Shizuko Ina once wrote in Crystal City, “if today is the day they’re going to line us up and shoot us.”


Satsuki Ina didn’t think much about the detention of Central American families until she started seeing reports last year of officials defending conditions at the centers.

Ina thought of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrat who signed the executive order paving the way for internment camps. Now the Obama administration was defending family detention, noting that detainees received three square meals and clean housing.


“That’s what they said about us too: You have a roof over your head,” Ina said.

Then Carl Takei emailed her last spring. Takei, 35, is an ACLU lawyer based in Washington, D.C., whose grandparents were held at Tule Lake. He had visited the family detention centers in Texas and made the connection.

“When we talk about family detention today, we have to consider what its place will be in history,” he said. “Everything the families told me echoed so strongly my own family’s stories about their World War II incarceration.”

He figured that if Ina visited, her background in counseling families would lend credibility to what he saw.

Ina lives in Berkeley and had never returned to Crystal City. It wasn’t that she was afraid. For years, she had assumed something would eventually draw her back. Something important.

On a warm afternoon, Ina stood before a crowd gathered along a dusty road outside the barbed-wire fence surrounding another center in Dilley, 75 miles west of Karnes City. A spring breeze ruffled Ina’s short, salt-and-pepper hair.

“My family was held for four years. Today we stand together with you in unity and solidarity, because incarceration for children and families is not only unjust, it’s immoral,” Ina told several hundred protesters, some carrying signs that said, “Free the families” and “Children don’t belong behind bars.”


“Nobody came to protest on our behalf. Nobody, people like you, took the time to protest the unjust incarceration,” Ina said. “Let’s shut it down.” The crowd cheered and clapped.

As the protest wound down, Ina found herself thinking about Crystal City. It’s only about 40 miles west, she thought.

And so she found herself driving past oil derricks and natural gas flares, with fellow protesters who filmed her reaction. Suddenly there it was: a cluster of monuments in a nearly empty field. A phrase jumped out at her, carved atop a gray stone cube, “World War II Concentration Camp.”

“Both national and U.S. citizens alike were abruptly, and without justification, incarcerated in a concentration camp at this location,” the inscription said, noting that internees’ descendants placed it there in 1985, “as a reminder that the injustices and humiliations suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism and discrimination never happen again.”

Ina noticed small pits where the latrines had been. She stood on one of the slabs, remnants of the more than 40 barracks that guards called “cottages.”

She was reminded of the families she had just visited in what today’s guards call “residential centers.”


“It masks and hides the truth,” she said.


Last fall, Ina told a crowd at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles what she had seen in Texas. Family detention had gained more attention as opponents — including virtually all House Democrats — called on the administration to close the centers.

The Japanese American Citizens League had also called for an end to family detention, but Ina knew many were still unaware that the centers existed. That’s why she came to speak and screen “Children of the Camps.”

“There are women and children from Central America who are being criminalized and detained,” she said, noting the Dilley center is “only 45 minutes away from where I was held.”

The mostly Asian and white crowd fell silent.

Before the screening, Ina had surveyed a photo exhibit of the internment and found herself transfixed by the picture of a boy being evacuated with his parents and six siblings, tagged like luggage. Harry Kawahara, 84, stopped too. He had also been held at a camp. The two began chatting and discovered they knew the boy in the photo, Tooru Mochida.

Ina told Kawahara about the immigrant families detained. “It’s a human rights issue,” she said, adding, “They have cribs in the cells.”

Kawahara, who lives in Altadena, shook his head. “Wow. I consider myself a pretty aware person, but I don’t know about this,” he said.


Ina promised to keep him informed.

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Karnes City and Carcamo from Los Angeles.


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