Shizuko Ina pictured with her son Kiyoshi Ina, age four, and Satsuki Ina, age two, at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California.
Photo: Courtesy of Satsuki Ina

The government called it a “segregation center,” but Satsuki Ina calls it a prison camp.

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The following February, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the incarceration of anyone on the West coast who was deemed a threat, including everyone with Japanese ancestry. Government officials arrested Ina’s parents and took them to a horse track outside San Francisco that doubled as a temporary holding area. Ina’s family ultimately was sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center near the California-Oregon border. Ina’s mother was pregnant at the time.

Tule Lake was a maximum-security prison camp that, at its peak, locked up over 18,000 people. Some 1,200 guards watched over the inmates from 28 watch towers. Some of the guards had machine guns. they were backed up by eight tanks.

“And that’s where I was born,” Ina told me.

Her father delivered a speech at Tule Lake at one point, declaring that it was his constitutional right to be free like other Americans. Ina says the U.S. charged him with sedition and punished him by separating the family and sending him to a prison camp in Bismarck, North Dakota.

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Satsuki Ina holds up an identification tag issued to her mother, Shizuko Ina, at her home in Oakland, California.
Photo: AP

By the time World War II ended, her family had been reunited at a prison camp in Crystal City, Texas. Ina was two and a half years old when she and her family were released. She says that time in detention has stayed with her, manifesting in longterm stress and negative physical consequences.

Today she’s a psychotherapist who has spent time visiting family detention centers, including the South Texas Family Residential Center, which sits just 44 miles away from her childhood prison in Crystal City.

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July 1942 archive photo of pre-school children on the way to their barrack homes from morning class at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry.
Photo: Dorothea Lange/Department of Interior

Ina’s experience is eerily similar to what many young immigrants are experiencing today. I spoke to Ina about her life, work, and the longterm effects of detaining children in prison camps.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You were born inside a prison camp here in the U.S. The U.S. government apologized for locking up Japanese-American families. What goes through your mind now when you hear the is U.S. detaining about 11,000 children in “shelters” across the country?

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It’s alarming. It’s so resonant with what my family and my whole community had to experience. America made a horrible mistake back then.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, there was so much collective anxiety in our country that finding a scapegoat was a natural outcome. The U.S. government just completely bypassed constitutional rights and human rights. And that’s that’s what I feel like is happening today with the inhumanity of separating children from their parents as a form of punishment.

I interviewed mothers in a family detention facility and I asked them why they would take such a huge risk and cross the continent to to get to the U.S. border. And it’s because they did not want to be separated from their children.

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They worried that their daughter could be kidnapped and become part of sex trafficking or that their boy would be captured and become part of a gang. The women told me that they felt like they had to gather their children and escape so that they could keep their children from being separated from them.

What are some of the longterm effects that these children in detention may have to live with?

I am a psychotherapist, so I work with children who have been traumatized and what they are experiencing is definitely trauma. One of the worst traumas for children is to be separated from their caregivers and then placed in what they calling “temporary detention facilities.” But it’s indefinite detention—they have no idea how long they’re going to be held. They have no idea if they’ll ever see their parents again.

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That level of anxiety causes tremendous emotional stress, and we know from the research in neuroscience that constant release of these stress hormones can affect a child’s ability to learn, a child’s ability to self-manage, to regulate themselves.

Left: 1942 photograph of “residents of Japanese ancestry appear for registration prior to evacuation. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.” Right: Photograph taken in 1942 of “third generation of American children of Japanese ancestry in crowd awaiting the arrival of the next bus which will take them from their homes to the Assembly center.”
Photo: Dorothea Lange/Department of Interior

The longterm impact that I’ve seen in my own Japanese American community is this hyper-vigilance, this need to constantly prove themselves, and always being on edge. Japanese Americans are viewed often as the model minority but I see the behavior of needing to strive and not offend and belong and maybe give up their own personal aspirations to fit in has come at a great sacrifice and is a reaction to having been incarcerated unjustly.

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You left the prison camp when you were two and half years old. How did those years affect you?

This kind of treatment has consequences for a lifetime for a child. The trauma effect is pretty severe when there’s been captivity trauma. We were unjustly incarcerated when we weren’t guilty of anything.

Today I live with anxiety about the possibility of random accusations or being blamed for something. That’s constantly present. So we are always working hard to please people and not cause trouble. There’s a constant need to be perfect. We don’t show up in the criminal justice system but we end up with a lot of psychosomatic disorders and symptoms resulting from over-achievement. We question our integrity and worthiness. I’m over-educated, for example. I have a Bachelors, Masters, PhD, I’m a licensed therapist, a certified gerontologist, the list goes on.

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That high level of anxiety has given me high blood pressure. A lot of us who were incarcerated as children have high blood pressure. A study by Dr. Gwendolyn Jensen found that Japanese men who were detained had a 2.1 greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular mortality, and premature death than Japanese men in Hawaii who were not imprisoned. [The study found the youngest detainees reported more post-traumatic stress symptoms and unexpected and disturbing flashback experiences.]

NBC News got a tour of a facility that’s detaining some 1,500 kids. They reported that some of the kids are being prescribed “medication for psychological issues” without their parents knowing. What do you think about this?

Wow, that’s the first time I’ve heard that. That is another form of control. There are prison bars, and then there’s medication that can control behavior. So if the child is acting out or not being cooperative they can sedate them. It’s another form of imprisonment, chemical prison guards to keep them sedated and more manageable. This is such a violation of children’s rights. This zero-tolerance policy is leading to really uncharted inhumane measures.

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The Department of Health and Human Services released pictures on Wednesday taken at a shelter detaining 1,500 boys. Near the cafeteria, there’s a mural with Trump’s face on it. The mural reads: “Sometimes losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.” This is a quote from his book The Art of the Deal. What goes through your mind when you hear that?

That is overt, paternalistic brainwashing. It implies that what’s happening to them is some beneficial oversight. And the message is really saying you need to accept this situation that you’re in and that there will be a benefit to you. That is a common message of an oppressor or a captor to get control over the victim. It’s appalling.

A mural depicting President Donald Trump at The Casa Padre shelter in Brownsville, Texas. On Wednesday night there were 1,469 migrant boys being detained at the facility.
Photo: Health and Human Services Department/LATimes

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One of the ways you know you’re a victim of mass incarceration is that the perpetrator uses euphemistic language to distort the reality of what’s being done to them.

This is what they told us when we were at the prison camps: This is for your own good. We’re protecting you from harm that others may direct toward you and this is a way for you to show your loyalty. And I think even after the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, many people still believe that.

At one shelter in Brownsville, Texas, the kids are reportedly indoors for 22 hours during the week and 21 hours on weekends. They are locked inside a converted former Walmart, packing five into rooms built for four. What does this do to a child’s psyche?

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Of course it depends on the individual, but it could go in many directions, including them internalizing the message of being bad, being a prisoner. Children will internalize that perception of themselves.

In the family detention centers I visited, I interviewed boys who were separated from their mothers. The boys lose their spontaneity and curiosity. There is this numbing that continues even afterwards.

The original caption on this October 1944 Department of the Interior photograph reads: “These elementary school children at the Tule Lake Center are thrilled at the sight of their first calf.”
Photo: Department of the Interior

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Trump has been talking a lot about MS-13, the gang founded in Los Angeles by Central American refugees. He’s claimed they are thugs and animals, and that some of them entered the U.S. disguised as “unaccompanied alien minors.” Do you think this will make a lot of kids angry and perhaps making them easier to recruit?

I think it’s possible. Unaccompanied minors have been characterized as potential MS-13 gang members and the government is creating breeding grounds for that in some ways. Then that’ll be justification for getting rid of them and sending them back home.

We saw this with young Hmong refugees that were brought over after the Vietnam War. They had been exposed to so much violence and victimization themselves. Then they experienced a lot of racism when they were plopped down in California. So they sought each other out in schools. And I think the anger and the exposure to war had this really negative effect on many of them and there were serious problems with gang activity.

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Right now these boys are being treated as if they’re criminals. And some of these children have no idea what’s going to happen to them. They don’t know how they’re going to be reunified with their parents. So it wouldn’t be too far of a reach to imagine that they would seek each other out to find some kind of inner strength and some sense of power by becoming more organized.

There’s been some national press coverage, but I don’t feel like we are responding with the amount of outrage these actions deserve. Are we being complacent?

When thousands of Japanese Americans were being removed from their classrooms, from their jobs, and their neighborhoods, there was no outcry. No one instituted any kind of protest. And there was no press or organized effort to stand up for the Japanese-Americans because it was war time. We are currently in a war-like situation in that immigrants are seeking safety. And they have been characterized as criminals and rapists.

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On one level I think people have the sense that anyone trying to enter our country is a threat. So there is support for Trump’s tightened policies. The broader audience is feeling complacent because they don’t feel identified with the population. I think that’s what happened to us.

My hope is that people will know how important it is to stand up for the injustice that’s happening right now.