This piece originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016 and is reprinted here with permission of the author. Janet Golden’s latest book is Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America into the Twentieth Century.
Seventy-five years ago, over 125,000 Americans (the majority of them citizens) were sent to concentration camps. Over half of those interned were children.
As Japanese-Americans, they were alleged to pose a risk to national security during World War II and were the victims of systemic racism. Executive order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt in 1942 and upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States in 1944 led to the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast with no regard for their due process rights. Four decades later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granting reparations to those who had been incarcerated, and in 1993 President Bill Clinton signed an official letter of apology sent to each camp survivor. That terrible chapter in our nation’s history has ended and is now taught in our schools so that as a nation we never forget the wrong done by the government.
Or have we forgotten? How will later generations come to view our current immigration detention centers?
According to the Global Detention Project “the United States operates the world’s largest immigration detention system. On any given day, the country has some 30,000 people in administrative immigration at an estimated cost of nearly $150 a day.” There are 200 facilities, some privately operated, and the cost budgeted for enforcement for 2016 is $19 billion. Repeated investigations of health care provision in these centers finds that it is substandard. (This is not just an American problem. Australia places asylum seekers in long term detention on offshore islands where detainees experience physical and mental health problems.)
Syrian refugees, now numbering five million, face numerous health challenges, even when not living in temporary camps.) Among those locked up in American immigration detention centers are pregnant women and infants. The international human rights organization Human Rights First has called for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to end to family detention.
There are many lessons to be learned from the forced detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, and one of them is this: being born and growing up in detention can be harmful to both physical health and emotional well-being. Camps lacked both a sufficient health staff of health care providers and all the medical equipment and drugs needed to care for women giving birth, infants, and children (as well as adults). The facilities housing families were less than ideal, failing to offer sufficient shelter from harsh winter cold or broiling summer heat. Supplies of food could run short, or fail to meet the needs of particular youngsters.
In an oral history of her camp experience, one woman recalled her infant daughter’s suffering because she was allergic to the powdered milk supplied by the camp and was often hospitalized as a result. The long-term health consequences of childhood in a relocation camp included life-shortening cardiovascular diseases, to say nothing of the lingering psychological effects of living behind the barbed wire. Actor George Takei, who has spoken and written about his childhood years in the Rohwer and Tule Lake Relocation Camps, often remarks that he remembers the barbed wire. He adjusted, but he did not forget.
Relocation camps are not the same as immigration detention centers. And 2016 is not 1942. However, there are historical lessons to be learned. We can see, in hindsight, the terrible injustice of Japanese American incarceration and the harm done to the children born and living in the internment camps. Will we someday look back at our immigration detention program and be forced to apologize for the wrongs done to the young people interned there? Let’s debate our immigration policies; let’s not make undocumented children suffer while we figure out what to do.