Today is a day that will live in infamy.
On this day in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering the interment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, both immigrants and native born. Families were uprooted from their homes in the western United States and relocated to camps farther inland where they lived during the duration of the war. It is a shameful part of our nation’s history.
Two years ago, I had the occasion to travel to El Paso, TX with T’ruah and HIAS on a rabbinic mission to witness and learn about what is happening now to migrants and asylum seekers at our southern border, and how the US government is implementing immigration policy. As part of that trip we visited Otero Detention Center in New Mexico, an ICE facility (run by a for-profit company) to detain migrants who have presented themselves at a border crossing. It was essentially a prison, where non-criminals were kept in a building with cinderblock walls behind barbed wire fences, with communal eating and sleeping facilities and limited access to legal help and medical care. It was very difficult to see.
While only about 20 minutes outside of El Paso, Otero is in a remote area of southern New Mexico without anything else in the immediate vicinity. On the bus when we were leaving, I had a flashback to the previous summer, when my family and I took a social justice themed road trip across the US. One of our first stops (after visiting family) was to Minidoka, a Japanese internment camp in Jerome, ID. (About 130 miles east of Boise.)
The parallels were eerie: Minidoka, like Otero, was in a remote area without anything else in the immediate vicinity. Both were places of detention, surrounded by barbed wire, and populated by non-criminals. Both were places where the US, by official policy, put those deemed undesirable or suspect. Both were places created out of fear.
That recognition was compounded as the next stop after Otero was to an immigrant rights organization emblazoned with the quote from FDR: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” I recognize that we are all human, and therefore inconsistent at times and able to hold competing claims at the same time. And yet, I had a feeling of disconnect, for while FDR may have proclaimed his support for the immigrant experience, his legacy signing order 9066 taints that.
FDR, we must remember, was also responsible for keeping out Jewish refugees and asylum seekers fleeing antisemitism and oppression in Europe. Most famously we can remember the story of the St. Louis, a German ship carrying over 900 refugees that in 1939 was turned away from docking in the United States. The ship eventually returned to Europe, where its passengers faced the horrors of the Holocaust. (This was a result too of quotas instituted two decades earlier ending the massive waves of Jewish immigration in the early 20th century.)
It is experiences like this–our own history of both benefiting from and suffering under US immigration policy–that motivates many in the Jewish community to address issues of immigrant justice today. It is what motivated me to take that trip to the border, and what motivates my congregation to be a Sanctuary congregation, currently hosting a Guatemalan woman seeking refuge.
And we need to know that restrictive policy based on ethnicity and national origin didn’t start with this administration. We would do well to learn more about all aspects of US immigration policy history, not only our own Jewish stories. We would do well to remember and commemorate the Japanese internment during WWII.
And we can start by making a point to visit these domestic concentration camps, set up by our own government while Jews were being rounded up in Europe, to experience their reality and honor those who lived through them. We owe it to ourselves as Americans and as Jews.