Justice for the Forgotten Internees

Japanese Latin Americans en route to U.S. internment camps during World War II.
Japanese Latin Americans en route to U.S. internment camps during World War II. (National Japanese American Historical Society Via Associated Press)
By Xavier Becerra and Dan Lungren
Monday, February 19, 2007

Art Shibayama is an American who served in the Army during the Korean War. Like many veterans, Cpl. Shibayama was not born in the United States. He was born in Lima, Peru, to Japanese Peruvian parents. Until 1942, Shibayama, his two brothers and three sisters lived comfortably with their parents and grandparents, all of whom had thriving businesses. However, after America entered World War II, his family was forcibly removed from Peru, transported to the United States and held in a government-run internment camp in Crystal City, Tex.

Like many Japanese American families, Shibayama's family lost everything they owned. But the greater injustice occurred when his grandparents were sent to Japan in exchange for American prisoners of war. Their family never saw them again.

Shibayama and his family were among the estimated 2,300 people of Japanese descent from 13 Latin American countries who were taken from their homes and forcibly transported to the Crystal City camp during World War II. The U.S. government orchestrated and financed the deportation of Japanese Latin Americans for use in prisoner-of-war exchanges with Japan. Eight hundred people were sent across the Pacific, while the remaining Japanese Latin Americans were held in camps without due process until after the war ended.

Further study of the events surrounding the deportation and incarceration of Japanese Latin Americans is merited and necessary. While most Americans are aware of the internment of Japanese Americans, few know about U.S. government activities in other countries that were fueled by prejudice against people of Japanese ancestry.

That is why we have introduced H.R. 662, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Latin Americans of Japanese Descent Act. We should review U.S. military and State Department directives requiring the relocation, detention and deportation of Japanese Latin Americans to Axis countries. Then we should recommend appropriate remedies. It is the right thing to do to affirm our commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

This year marks the 26th anniversary of the formation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, whose findings led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. It provided an official apology and financial redress to most of the Japanese Americans who were subjected to wrongdoing and confined in camps during World War II. Those loyal Americans were vindicated by the fact that not a single documented case of sabotage or espionage was committed by a Japanese American during that time. This act was the culmination of a half-century of struggle to bring justice to those who were denied it. But work to rectify and close this regrettable chapter in our nation's history remains unfinished.

U.S. involvement in the expulsion and internment of people of Japanese descent who lived in various Latin American countries is thoroughly recorded in government files. These civilians were robbed of their freedom -- their civil and human rights thrown by the wayside -- as they were kidnapped from nations not directly involved in World War II. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians acknowledged these federal actions in detaining and interning civilians of enemy or foreign nationality, particularly those of Japanese ancestry, but the commission failed to fully examine and report on the historical documents that exist in distant archives.

Today, the Day of Remembrance, marks the anniversary of the 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066 -- the document that made it possible to intern thousands of Japanese Americans, German Americans, Italian Americans and Japanese Latin Americans during World War II. Though it is important that we remember what took place, it is more critical that we act, for justice delayed is justice denied. And for the dwindling number of surviving internees who became Americans, such as Cpl. Art Shibayama, justice has been delayed far too long. They deserve our attention, our respect and the official recognition of a country that is willing to heal and to make amends.

Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, and Dan Lungren, a Republican, are U.S. representatives from California.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company