Left: a 1941 AP photograph of a Japanese internment camp in Upton, New York; Right: a Central American migrant pictured after being detained in Texas.
Illustration: AP/Getty/Splinter

The Trump administration’s plan to construct a prison camp to hold up to 5,000 unaccompanied migrant children “echoes some of the worst elements of our national history,” Carl Takei, a senior ACLU staff attorney, told Splinter. Takei, who now litigates police practices and previously focused on immigration, added that “the scale of it is enormous.”

He called the plans “moral horror” in a tweet after learning about how the Trump administration is reportedly looking into building tent cities at military posts to lock up between 1,000 and 5,000 unaccompanied children.

Currently more than 11,200 migrant children without a parent or guardian are in the custody of the Office of Refuge Resettlement. The shelters are 95 percent full, according to McClatchy, who first reported the news about the tent city proposal.

Takei offers a deeply personal and nuanced perspective: He is a Japanese-American with family members who were incarcerated in internment camps, in addition to being an expert on immigration detention practices. Takei has previously written about how his grandmother, Bette Takei, was incarcerated in a federally run “internment camp” while his grandfather, Kuichi Takei, fought in an artillery unit of the United States Army in Europe during World War II.

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“So, while Kuichi fought for the allies in Europe, my grandmother Bette waited for him in an American version of a concentration camp,” Takei wrote in an ACLU blog post last year.

“Up to 5,000 children being held in a single tent city prison camp” recalls “the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the forced separation of children from their parents on Native American reservations,” Takei said.

United States Defense Aliens Japanese Internment Camp Upton in New York, November 3, 1941.
Photo: AP

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Takei was referring not only to Japanese internment camps, but also the American Indian children who were forcibly separated from their parents when they were sent to government- or church-operated boarding schools in the late 19th century. The current administration’s policy to separate migrant families and proposal to jail unaccompanied minors in camps “really combines the two [worst elements] together.”

Between 1861 and 1940, an estimated 275,000 Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii and the mainland United States. Many of them worked in the agriculture industry. In Hawaii, they were contract laborers on sugarcane fields. In California, Japanese-American farmers produced more than 40 percent of the state’s commercial vegetable crop.

The Manzanar Relocation Center viewed from the guards’ tower
Photo: Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

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In February 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. The order led the U.S. to force at least 117,000 people of Japanese ancestry out of their homes and moved them to “relocation” or “internment” camps. The camps “were situated many miles inland, often in remote and desolate locales,” according to the National Archives.

Takei thinks it’s fair to compare the treatment of Japanese-Americans and Native Americans to unaccompanied migrant minors who may have entered the country illegally or are seeking asylum.“We’re still talking about children,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

What’s being proposed now with unaccompanied minors is starting to sound eerily familiar to the same thing the U.S. apologized for just three decades ago. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, and offered $20,000 in reparations to each Japanese American prison camp survivor. The legislation admitted that Executive Order 9066 was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

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“Locking children in prison camps is going to cause them life-long trauma and is going to be a great stain on the United States in the same way that the World War II round ups and incarceration of Japanese Americans was,” Takei said.