Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. While the possibility of internment camps for Muslim Americans may sound farfetched, it happened to Japanese Americans in World War II. Understanding how it happened to the Japanese Americans might help us to prevent it from happening again.

A series of attacks by radical jihadist terrorists like the ones in Europe probably would not result in the internment of Muslim Americans, but an ongoing series of attacks as horrific as 9/11 would be a different matter. The fear and anger that would produce would be hard to control.

The events leading to the internment of Japanese Americans began at 7:55 a.m. on December 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The Japanese fighter planes destroyed almost 20 American naval vessels, including eight large battleships, and more than 300 airplanes. They also killed more than 2,000 Americans soldiers and sailors, and wounded another 1,000. Later that day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation authorizing the removal of Japanese enemy aliens from the United States. The next day, he declared war on Japan. And four months later, he sent 16 B25 bombers on a secret mission to show that we could strike the interior of Japan. They bombed factory areas, oil storage facilities, and military installations in Tokyo.

The Japanese American interments were not directed at the entire Japanese American population. Approximately 275,000 Japanese immigrants settled in Hawaii and on the mainland of the United States between 1861 and 1940, but the Japanese in Hawaii were not included in the interments even though the internment order was a reaction to the Japanese attack on a naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii. It was limited to the Japanese who had settled on the West Coast. Although the Japanese farmers worked less than 4% of California’s farmland in 1940, they produced more than 10% of the total value of the state’s farm resources, which I think explains why civilian lobbyists from California joined the American military leaders in pressuring Congress and President Roosevelt to remove the Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The military leaders expected a Japanese invasion on the West Coast and were afraid that the Japanese Americans would provide behind the lines assistance to the invading army. Their views prevailed. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forced all Japanese Americans, regardless of loyalty or citizenship, to leave the West Coast. Congress implemented the order on March 21, 1942, by passing Public Law 503.

The government relocated more than 120,000 people to internment camps located across the country. Approximately 70,000 of them were American citizens. The government made no charges against them, and they could not appeal their incarcerations. All of them lost their personal liberties; most also lost homes and property. The internments included more than 300 Italian Americans and more than 5,000 German residents.

The internments were challenged in court and the case ultimately was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), Fred Korematsu, a United States citizen, argued that he had been imprisoned in a concentration camp solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty or disposition towards the United States. The Court found that to cast this case into outlines of racial prejudice, without reference to the real military dangers which were presented, merely confuses the issue. Korematsu was not excluded from the West Coast because of hostility towards him or his race. He was excluded because we were at war with the Japanese Empire, and American military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast. They decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be removed from the West Coast temporarily, and Congress, reposing its confidence in this time of war in our military leaders, determined that they should have the power to do it.

It is conceivable that a similar argument could be made to put Muslim Americans in internment camps in the midst of an ongoing series of horrific terrorist attacks, but it seems extremely unlikely that the internments would be directed at the entire Muslim population.

The Japanese American interments were not directed at the entire Japanese population. The Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not included in the interments even though the internment order was a reaction to the Japanese attack on a naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. It was limited to the Japanese who had settled on the West Coast, which is where the perceived invasion threat existed.

In contrast, putting the entire population of Muslim Americans in internment camps on the basis of a threat from a few terrorist organizations probably would be viewed by the courts as racism. It would be farfetched to claim that most or even many Muslim Americans would actively support terrorist attacks on America.

The interments almost certainly would have to be limited to Muslim Americans who might actually be terrorists or terrorist supporters. This would be similar to the way our Justice Department limited the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program, which was established after 9/11 to identify terrorists as quickly as possible. NSEERS only applied to males 16 years of age or older who were nationals or citizens of specified countries. Nevertheless, even the interment of a relatively small number of Muslim Americans without evidence of terrorist involvement would run counter to American values. Moreover, it could alienate the Muslim community, and their help would be needed to identify and locate the terrorists.

Published originally in Huffington Post


About the Author
Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an Executive Branch Immigration Law Expert for three years; he subsequently served as the immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for twenty years. He also has been a policy advisor for the DHS Office of Information Sharing and Collaboration under a contract with TKC Communications, and he has been in private practice as an immigration lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson.