Although federal statistics show fewer undocumented immigrants are trying to cross U.S. borders, the Trump administration remains committed to its aggressive policy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids across the country.
Many of its targets, who have admittedly entered the country outside the legal procedure in their desperation to leave behind violence and abuse in their homelands, have violated no laws since being here.
All too often, these newly detained immigrants are shunted off to for-profit detention centers to await their days in court, a legal limbo that evokes memories of 76 years ago, when almost 120,000 people of Japanese descent were imprisoned without legal due process during World War II.
The issue of immigrant detention never drifts far from that wartime injustice for me. My parents and their families were incarcerated at Heart Mountain, a desolate patch of high desert prairie in northwestern Wyoming.
Then, as now, overly hyped claims of national security gave rise to our baser communal emotions, as people who did nothing wrong were locked up. In World War II, it was the unsubstantiated fear of sabotage by Japanese Americans, whose race and alleged inability to assimilate into American culture made them suspect, despite multiple government reports that argued otherwise.
Now, President Trump claims that immigrants are possible terrorist threats, the “worst” people from their respective nations of origin.
Yes, it is true that those rounded up by ICE are undocumented immigrants. But most of them have clean records. They often do jobs that many Americans do not want as they pay taxes, build their communities, raise their U.S.-born children and live as Americans.
My grandparents, who immigrated from Japan, were prohibited from becoming citizens under the Naturalization Act of 1790 that explicitly said only white immigrants could naturalize. Even as they grew crops to feed their neighbors, racist laws prohibited them from owning the land they farmed. When they were finally able to afford land of their own, they were forced to list their farm under the names of their young, American-born children.
It was my uncles who had to sell the land for pennies on the dollar when the family was forcibly removed and sent to Heart Mountain. Today, their 14.25-acre plot is now the site of multi-million dollar homes in Silicon Valley.
Now this new group of people, most often Hispanic, is being subjected to the same treatment. The unfortunate elements of U.S. politics claim the new immigrants cannot become Americans, as if there has ever been one standard for what that means. In rounding up hard-working undocumented immigrants, the government is effectively preventing them from becoming prosperous, naturalized citizens in the same way my grandparents were barred from earning citizenship.
Beyond the issue of simple justice, the for-profit detention centers bring a corrosive element to the debate over immigration. Many of these companies, such as CoreCivic and MTC Corp., have poor track records. Detained immigrants are often abused. Conditions are poor, and the drive to make higher profit margins often crowds out humane treatment.
The prophets of “American exceptionalism” claim we are better than this, and I believe we are. Our policies should reflect that, and change should start by curtailing the arbitrary and capricious roundup of immigrants without criminal records and the use of for-profit detention centers.
Shirley Ann Higuchi is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., past president of the D.C. Bar, and chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.