St. Louis Post-Dispatch: From Roosevelt to Trump, Japanese Americans see similarity in executive orders signed 75 years apart

By Doug Moore

In 1944, the majority of Supreme Court justices agreed that the nation’s security concerns outweighed the Constitution’s promise of equal rights.

Specifically, the court was weighing in on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to allow the federal government to round up 110,000 Japanese-Americans and place them in detention camps.

Roosevelt signed the order on Feb. 19, 1942, 10 weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Now, 75 years later, an executive order by President Donald Trump banning entry from certain Muslim-majority countries is under legal scrutiny and drawing comparisons to the one Roosevelt signed. Trump has said his order is a necessary tool in addressing national security.

“We’re seeing emerging parallels that are unsettling,” said John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University.

Inazu co-wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in December 2015, noting that the 1944 Supreme Court decision, officially known as Korematsu vs. United States, has never been formally overruled. However, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, legislation that offered a formal apology and paid $20,000 to each surviving resident of the internment camps.

“Our legal system relies heavily on precedent, meaning that even a discredited opinion is a danger if it remains on the books,” Inazu wrote in the piece, along with Karen Tani, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

The authors had no way of knowing that those words would resonate even more today, he said.

And a quote they used in the article from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia looms larger today than it did when he made it to a group of law students in 2014, two years before his death.

“Of course Korematsu was wrong,” Scalia said. But “you are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again.”

Trump’s Jan. 27 ban ignited fear and confusion throughout the world but was dealt a legal blow Feb. 3 when a federal judge temporarily blocked the ban, a ruling that an appeals court later refused to overturn.

“The government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States,” the panel of three appellate judges wrote in its unanimous decision.

Trump said Thursday that he would issue a new executive order, expected within the next few days.

Fear and jealousy

In 1942, as the federal government began forcibly removing Japanese-American families from their California homes and putting them in camps, some universities across the U.S. offered to admit college students headed for internment.

Washington University was among them, and one of those 30 students was Gyo Obata, who co-founded Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, now known as HOK, an international architectural firm with its home office in St. Louis.

Obata said the similarities between the Roosevelt and Trump executive orders could not be overlooked.

“All of this comes out of fear. It’s just terrible,” said Obata, 93. The government is categorizing people for “what they think they are instead of who they really are,” he said.

As Trump promises to continue his push for immigration restrictions, Washington University will hold on Friday a public forum called “Executive Orders: The Living Legacy of Japanese American Internment.”

Rebecca Copeland, a professor of Japanese language and literature at Washington U., will serve as moderator.

“In the 1942 situation, as in this one as well, I really feel the notion of security is being used as a smokescreen to take advantage of fear, the fear people have of strangers,” Copeland said.

The animosity toward Japanese-Americans developed long before Pearl Harbor, she said, when the western U.S. was still new territory and settlers were staking their claims.

“There was a lot of jealousy from settlers who felt that the Japanese were interlopers,” Copeland said.

Though first-generation Japanese were not allowed to become citizens, their children born in the U.S. were, and as the families began to establish roots, tension sparked between new Americans and those who had been here longer, over land ownership and the opening of competing businesses.

“We see something similar happening now, being very suspicious of immigrants, accusing them of being a drain on the economy,” she said.

‘A scary world’

Suzanne Arlene Sakahara was 10 when her family came to St. Louis from an internment camp in Wyoming.

“My mother had a cousin here, who said there was no prejudice here, so it’s a good place to relocate,” said Sakahara, 81, a retired art professor at Lindenwood University.

Sakahara’s parents ended up working for the commanding officer at Jefferson Barracks. Her father took care of the house, and her mother was a cook.

Imposing restrictions and challenging constitutional rights of immigrants has long been a part of U.S. history, from the Naturalization Act of 1790, limiting citizenship to white people of good character, to the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1880s, which was repealed 60 years later when that country became a U.S. ally in World War II.

During the Iran hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter imposed a series of sanctions against that Middle East country. They included an order barring the issuance of visas to Iranians “except for compelling and proven humanitarian reasons or where the national interest of our own country requires,” Carter said in April 1980.

Trump’s executive order last month would have banned for 90 days entry into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, and a four-month suspension of the U.S. refugee resettlement program. The order would have stopped entry by Syrian refugees indefinitely.

“I am establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” Trump said during the signing. “We don’t want them here. We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.”

Sakahara can’t help but wonder: “What’s Trump going to do? … It’s a scary world.”

Chikako Usui, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis said the Japanese-American internment camps are getting lost as part of history.

“When I teach my young students, they don’t know anything about it. They haven’t heard about it,” said Usui, who also serves as president of the Japan America Society of St. Louis.

When the students learn what happened 75 years ago, it puts in context what is happening today, she said.

“What is America? This is a country of immigration,” Usui said. “This is where people really need to rethink what we are doing.”

Last May, Inazu’s book, “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference,” was published. He argues that in spite of irresolvable differences over politics, religion, sexuality and other issues, humans can live together peacefully.

That can be done, he says, “by insisting on constitutional commitments that honor and protect difference.”

Last week, the professor whose main area of teaching is the First Amendment said he still clung to that belief.

“It might be a thin vision,” Inazu said, “but If we don’t find what we hold in common, there are real problems ahead.”