Shirley Ann Higuchi: Japanese American Citizens League is launching a new activism

In the last two weeks, President Trump has demanded that minority members of Congress go back to where they came from or criticized their districts as rat-infested hellholes.

It’s a refrain that’s all too familiar to Japanese Americans who remember how they and their families were treated before, during and after World War II.

The one organization that championed our rights at the time was the Japanese American Citizens League, which celebrates its 90th anniversary with its annual convention this week at the Little America in Salt Lake City, Utah.

JACL brought together people to help combat the hatred stirred up against Japanese immigrants and their families living in the United States.

The organization holds a special spot in my life because its first president, Saburo Kido, was the lawyer who helped my grandfather, Iyekichi Higuchi, buy our family’s farm in San Jose. Kido was a master at using the legal system to get around the racist laws that prevented immigrants from buying land; the Higuchi farm was placed in the names of two of my uncles, James and Kiyoshi.

Japanese immigrants like my grandparents were told they could not assimilate into the overall American population, did not value democratic values and believed in an alien religion. Many were constantly told to go back to where they came from.

JACL’s leaders told the rest of the country that Japanese Americans were proud U.S. citizens. Its first executive director, Mike Masaoka, led the creation of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Brigade, the most-decorated U.S. military unit during World War II. During the war, JACL’s leaders worked out of their headquarters in Salt Lake City.

JACL’s record is not perfect. During World War II, the group’s leaders accommodated the government that had imprisoned its members. They shunned the Japanese American men who resisted being drafted while they were incarcerated. More than 60 of those young men were imprisoned at the camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., with my parents and grandparents.

JACL eventually apologized to the resisters for that treatment, thanks to Floyd Mori of Salt Lake City, who was then the JACL president. Mori remains one of the group’s influential leaders, along with Judge Raymond Uno, a former Heart Mountain prisoner who became the first Asian American judge in Utah.

The organization was at the front of the effort that led Congress and President Ronald Reagan to enact the 1988 Civil Liberties Act that apologized for the Japanese American incarceration during World War II and made reparations of $20,000 to each surviving incarceree.

JACL stood up for our community then and carries on that mission today. Its leaders realize that an attack on one group of Americans is an attack on all of us. After the 9/11 attacks, they opposed efforts to demonize Muslim Americans

Under Executive Director David Inoue, JACL sees how our current border policies widen divisions in our troubled country and the long-term mental health impacts on those subjected to those policies. It has opposed family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border and the use of the Army’s Fort Sill as a detention center for immigrant children.

This week JACL’s members will confront the challenges facing ethnic minorities in the United States and help Japanese Americans deal with the multigenerational mental health trauma that still affects us.

That’s why we value JACL and applaud its steps to atone for some of its past stumbles. We look forward to gathering with this group this week to continue our growth as a community and its advocacy for fairness.

Shirley Ann Higuchi

Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. Higuchi is the author of an upcoming book about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD.