Shirley Ann Higuchi: Lee’s delaying tactics slow recognition of a historic site for all Americans

FILE - A sign stands at the entrance to Camp Amache, on Jan. 18, 2015, the site of a former World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp, in Granada, Colo. On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans at the onset of World war II, Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is getting backlash for holding up the creation of a national historic site at the former internment camp in extreme southeast Colorado. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)

On Sept. 19, 1942, the 11 members of the Muranaga family from Gardena, Calif., arrived in their new home – the concentration camp for Japanese Americans at Amache, just outside Granada, Colo.

They were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans forced from their homes on the West Coast, because of an unfounded fear they were saboteurs or spies for the government of imperial Japan.

In 1943, their oldest son, Kiyoshi, would join the U.S. Army to serve in the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. On June 26, 1944, Kiyoshi Muranaga would die saving his comrades from an attack from a fearsome German 88mm cannon in the fields near Suvereto, Italy.

Muranaga received the Medal of Honor for that sacrifice.

His is just one of the stories from the Amache camp, where 8,000 Japanese American spent all, or part of World War II exiled from their homes.

Now, one senator, Republican Mike Lee of Utah, is delaying a bill that would help bring those stories to a wider audience by making Amache a National Historic Site under the administration of the National Park Service.

Lee is blocking the Senate’s unanimous consent of the Amache bill, which passed the House 416-2 last July. Authored two Colorado House members, Republican Rep. Ken Buck, and Democrat Joe Neguse, it is the kind of bipartisan collaboration most of us say we want to see in a too-often-polarized Congress.

Unanimous consent allows bills with little controversy to pass the Senate quickly and no debate. It’s a way to ease the logjams that can delay legislation that has no real opposition.

Lee says he approves the bill by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., but opposes unanimous consent because, as the Associated Press reported, he opposes “adding new federal lands without adequate funding and in the past has advocated for ‘swaps’ to prevent expanding federal land ownership.”

Lee’s opposition doesn’t kill the bill, but it will force it to navigate a crowded Senate calendar to get a hearing. Too often, delays can mean death to legislation.

This delay comes at a critical time, as this Saturday, Feb. 19, is the 80th anniversary of the signing by President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and incarceration in Amache and nine other camps around the country.

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which I chair, received National Historic Landmark status for the site of the camp outside Cody, Wyo., in 2006. That helped us a build a world-class museum on the site where 14,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated.

We did that with the support of our Wyoming neighbors and a Republican congressional delegation that believed we must recognize this part of our history, no matter how unpleasant.

Utah has an extensive history with the Japanese American incarceration. Topaz, near Delta in Millard County, held about 8,000 Japanese Americans. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 2007. Salt Lake City was also the wartime home of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

Lee’s constituents include former Heart Mountain incarcerees, such as my father, William Higuchi, the former head of the pharmaceutical sciences department at the University of Utah; Raymond Uno, the first minority judge in Utah and past JACL president; and Jeanette Misaka, a longtime educator at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University.

All three have received the Japanese government’s coveted Order of the Rising Sun for their work to improve U.S.-Japanese relations.

I don’t question Lee’s sincerity and belief in his cause, but his obstruction is subjecting the survivors of the Japanese American incarceration, their families, and supporters to another injustice.

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. She is the author of “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” released last fall by the University of Wisconsin Press. Find out more at: Setsukossecret.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD.