Shirley Ann Higuchi: Treatment of Iranians at U.S. border shows we have not learned our lesson

(Elaine Thompson | AP file photo) In this Oct. 9, 2019 photo, traffic enters Canada from the United States at the Peace Arch Border Crossing, in Blaine, Wash. The Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans were detained and questioned at the border crossing over the weekend. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, however, said no Iranian-Americans were detained or refused entry because of their country of origin.

Here we go again.

Last weekend, U.S. residents of Iranian descent, some of them citizens, were subjected to intense scrutiny that often lasted hours by Customs and Border Patrol officials as they attempted to return to the United States from Canada at the Blaine, Wash., border crossing.

That followed a political crisis started by President Trump’s authorization of the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of that nation’s Revolutionary Guard believed responsible for attacks on U.S. troops.

Regardless of the reasons for the strike on Soleimani, the reaction by border officials was another uncomfortable reminder of the hysteria that forced 120,000 Japanese Americans, including both sets of my parents and grandparents, into camps during World War II.

From virtually the moment the news about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor broke on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese Americans feared for their freedom of movement. My maternal grandmother, Fumi Saito, worried that an angry mob would attack her husband, Yoshio, as he tried to return to San Francisco from his store in nearby Oakland. So she took my 10-year-old mother and her brothers, aged 8 and 12, with her to retrieve Yoshio. She believed the presence of her children would deter an attack.

Two months later, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the eventual forced relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and their incarceration in 10 camps in seven states.

That forced my grandfather Saito to lose his store and my paternal grandfather, Iyekichi Higuchi, to sell his 14.25-acre farm in San Jose for pennies on the dollar as they were incarcerated in the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo.

They were imprisoned solely because of their ethnic origin, not because of evidence of any wrongdoing.

When the war was over and the hysteria cooled, Americans told themselves that we were better than that, and how we would never unfairly target American citizens who looked different than most white Americans.

It should go without saying that Soleimani was an agent of chaos who had destabilized the Middle East and West Asia through his support of terrorist groups. In December 1941, the Japanese government was engaged in violent empire-building in the Pacific, attacking neutral nations such as the United States and killing thousands of innocent people. No one defended their actions, either.

But extending the cloak of suspicion over those whose ethnic backgrounds connect to those countries was contrary to American ideals in 1942 and is today, too.

We have a better example of how to respond in a crisis like this. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed more than 3,000 Americans, some officials wanted to impose travel restrictions on Muslims in the United States.

President George W. Bush, however, remembered the Japanese American incarceration, because Norman Mineta, his secretary of transportation, had been incarcerated as a child in 1942. Bush said he did not want to do to Muslims what the U.S. government did to Mineta.

Mineta and his family were incarcerated at Heart Mountain along with my parents, grandparents and almost 14,000 other Japanese Americans. None received a trial, and none was found guilty of anything other than having the wrong kind of face.

They did not leave the barbed wire in Wyoming until the summer of 1945, more than three years after they were incarcerated. Even today, the survivors of the incarceration and their descendants are still coping with the long-term mental health consequences of the government’s decision.

Much debate remains about the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran, and their ultimate effectiveness. The president’s credibility on this and other matters is dubious, and he has often treated minority groups harshly, such as with the Muslim travel ban and our border detention policies. What should remain beyond debate, however, is that our government should not discriminate against people because of the color of their skin and ethnic origin.

It was wrong when it happened to Japanese Americans, who ultimately received a government apology and reparations, and it is wrong now. Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, we should not turn back the clock to a time of fear, hysteria and unreasonable suspicion.

(Photo by Brian Smyer) 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. Her book, “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” is to be published by University of Wisconsin Press is due out this spring. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD.