Harnessing History and Solidarity to Stop Migrant Detention (ep. 84)

January 29, 2020
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The U.S. has a long history of detaining and incarcerating communities of color under the auspice of protecting its national security. Today, on Korematsu Day, we honor and celebrate the legacy of those who stood up against the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. On this episode, we speak with Linda Morris, an ACLU fellow and a descendant of Japanese American prisoners incarcerated in U.S. camps during WWII, who is engaging her own family history to stand in solidarity with immigrants currently detained by ICE.

Looking for more? Follow us: @ACLU and @EmersonSJSykes on Twitter.

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EMERSON SYKES:
[00:02] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I’m Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney at the ACLU and your host.

[00:18] Today is Korematsu Day, where we honor and celebrate the birthday of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American man who, along with hundreds of thousands of others, was sent to a prison camp during World War II. Korematsu, however, refused to go and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The result of the case was one of the most notorious decisions of the 20th century. The Supreme Court ruled that the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, often referred to as “Japanese internment,” was constitutional because the country was merely protecting its “national security.” Some of the same facilities where Japanese Americans were held are being used today to incarcerate immigrants.

Our guest today is Linda Morris, a fellow with the ACLU Women's Rights Project who's engaging her own family history of Japanese incarceration to help end immigrant detention across the country. Linda, welcome to the podcast.

LINDA MORRIS:
[01:12] Thank you so much for having me.

EMERSON
Under the Trump administration the number of migrants held by the government has surged. There are about 200 immigration detention facilities in the US holding over 50,000 immigrants on any given day. We’ve all seen this crisis develop, but you decided to do something about it. Tell us about your work.

LINDA:
[01:30] I am an organizer and a member of the steering committee for a grassroots group called Tsuru for Solidarity. And Tsuru for Solidarity is a nonviolent direct action project of Japanese American activists who are working to end detention sites and to support frontline immigrant and refugee communities that have been targeted by racist and inhumane immigration policies. And our work at Tsuru for Solidarity is very much grounded in our collective history and moral authority of the survivors and descendants of these World War II prison camps. We have been working deliberately with communities who have been targeted by state violence in this country. And we have been using the symbol of Tsuru, which is the Japanese word for “crane” as an expression of solidarity with these with these communities. And Tsuru symbolizes peace and healing and compassion.

EMERSON
What's the history of Tsuru for Solidarity?

LINDA:
[02:32] Tsuru for Solidarity was really conceived last March in 2019, and it was conceived during a pilgrimage to a former camp site in Crystal City, Texas, which is the former site of a World War II prison camp for people of Japanese ancestry. And just down the road from that site is the largest family detention center in the United States: the South Texas Residential Family Center. And when we learned about that center, we knew that we had to organize a protest.

Following our action in Texas, we realized that our work wasn't done, that the impact of that action was so great that we needed to continue our work and to really formalize our mission as an organization. And so Tsuru for Solidarity was really conceived from that event.

EMERSON
One of your more notable protests was at Fort Sill. What’s Fort Sill’s significance?

LINDA:
[03:33] Fort Sill is a military base in Oklahoma. And last summer, the Trump administration announced that they would be building a so-called “temporary shelter” for immigrant children at that military base. And this was shocking to the Japanese American community because Fort Sill is also the former site of a World War II prison camp for people of Japanese ancestry. Fort Sill is also the site of a former Native American boarding school where indigenous children were removed from their families, separated from their culture and their language. And it is also the former site of a prisoner of war camp for the Apache tribe, including Apache leader Geronimo. And so Fort Sill is a place that is very much layered with trauma inflicted by state violence.

EMERSON:
[04:18] It's a really powerful show of solidarity. And I'm wondering, what was it like to be there, be actually at Fort Sill with this broad coalition of partners who are trying to close this place down?

LINDA:
[04:31] It was transformative, in a word. We we went to Fort Sill twice, actually. So the first occasion that we went to Fort Sill and organized an action was in June of last year, only a few weeks after we first learned that the Trump administration had plans to construct a temporary shelter for immigrant children. And we went with elders who were incarcerated as children during World War II. And we organized a press conference outside of the military base where we brought with us hand-folded paper origami cranes and our elders gave statements outside of the military base in front of the sign to describe what their experiences of incarceration as children were like.

[05:16] They talked about memories such as having their birthday parties interrupted by government agents who were taking their family members. They talked about their memories of being children and trying to play in these prison camps. And they also talked about the deep shame and internalized racism and trauma that they've carried with them since their time being incarcerated in these camps. And it was an incredibly moving experience to be with them.

[05:20] The second time that we went to Fort Sill was for a much larger action in coalition with United We Dream and many other local organizations and other national organizations who joined us. We shut down the highway leading into the military base and we had over 400 people with us from all over the country and all over Oklahoma. And we also brought with us a congregation of Buddhist priests who were there to really remember the history of Japanese incarceration at Fort Sill.

EMERSON:
[06:25] And this action ended up being quite successful. Can you update us on what actually ended up happening with Fort Sill?

LINDA:
[06:29] Very shortly after our July action with United We Dream, we found out that week that the Oklahoma government decided that they would not be constructing a so-called “temporary shelter” there any longer. We do have some fears that those those plans might change and they actually will end up wanting to build some sort of detention site there. But if that happens, we'll be back.

EMERSON:
You mentioned that Tsuru for Solidarity is a group of descendants of Japanese incarceration. But what’s your family’s story?

LINDA:
[07:00] My family was incarcerated during World War II. My grandmother was 22 when she was incarcerated. She remembers very vividly when they found out that they needed to be removed from California. And she remembers her family digging a hole in their backyard, filling it with all of their belongings that were Japanese, ranging from children's books to family letters, and having to leave their home and everything that they knew in California to a prison camp in Arkansas.

And my grandmother lost her mother a couple months after they entered those camps. My great grandmother at 48-years-old became inexplicably ill and passed away. And my grandmother, being the eldest daughter, was then tasked with taking care of her eight younger siblings. And so that experience, even though my grandmother never spoke of it very often when I was when I was a child, when she was still alive, it was impossible to not inherit some of that trauma and not feel the weight of that experience. My grandparents met in the camps and they actually got married in the camps.

EMERSON:
[08:12] Wow. How did they restart their lives after they were released?

LINDA:
[08:16] When they're released from the camps, they were told that there would be a job waiting for them or waiting for my grandfather rather in Washington, DC. And so again, not where my grandparents were from. My grandfather was actually from Hawaii and my grandmother is from California. And so they were given 25 dollars and they were told that there is a job waiting for you in Washington, D.C. When they arrived to Washington, DC, there was not a job waiting for them, but they just fought to try to find some place for them to live.

They were eventually able to secure a home and they were able to go on and live incredible lives. My grandmother ended up being a seamstress for different ballet companies, including the American Ballet Theater and they were able to eventually have the lives that I think they dreamt of, but in the process, were just carrying a lot of the trauma of their history.

I think my family very much understands that trauma like that is passed on from generation to generation. And my family today still struggles to even talk about it. The lasting harm of that experience ranges from loss of language and loss of culture to just the fracturing of our own community.

Because of my family's history, I realized that this cannot happen to another community. We can't stand by and let another community, any community or any individual experience that type of of harm again. And so as Japanese Americans, we feel like it is our duty and it is our obligation to fight for the communities that are being targeted today.

EMERSON:
[09:59] You mentioned the fact that your grandmother, for obvious and understandable reasons, didn't talk much about her experience in the prison camps. How were you able to piece this family history together, given that it was so hard for people to discuss?

LINDA:
[10:14] She shared it in bits and pieces and actually, my mother really worked with my grandmother towards the end of her life to try to get her to talk about it and to share her experiences. And fortunately, before my grandmother passed, she spoke to me about her experience very briefly. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to understand what it was like for my grandmother to have gone through that. And I remember I asked her, “Aren't you angry? Aren’t you furious at this country. Don't you hold resentment to the United States for what has happened to you?” And I remember she said: “Yes, it was terrible what happened to me. But this would never happen again.”

And I think that that is something that has stuck with me across the years is my grandmother's belief that this country would now know better and that it wouldn't repeat its history. And to see the amount of vitriol and xenophobia and racism that’s sort of come up in this administration and within the immigration system itself has been really discouraging to me and has really compelled me to fight back.

EMERSON:
[11:26] Well, it seems like even though many of the details of this family history were not readily passed down, it had a big impact on your formation of your identity. And I'm wondering if it also informed your decision to become a civil rights attorney.

LINDA:
[11:44] My history definitely informed my decision to become a civil rights attorney. I think it's impossible to separate my family's experience and my identity from the work that I do. From an early age, I had an understanding that there is a lot of injustice in this country and I felt very much like it was my passion, it was my calling, to do whatever I could to fight back against that.

At the ACLU Women's Rights Project, I actually focus mostly on housing discrimination against women of color and survivors of gender-based violence. And in doing that work, I remember also my grandmother's experience of trying to find housing after she was released from the camps and she said that she went to landlord from landlord trying to find housing and she was just denied everywhere that she went. And that's one piece of of the work that I do is combating that kind of discrimination.

EMERSON:
[12:43] Well, it’s fascinating how even though you've worked on a variety of different issues around gender, around economic empowerment, and now you're working more directly on issues around incarceration and detention of people who are first or second generation immigrants, it all seems like it's of a piece of this same sort of inspirational spark that comes from this family history. How do you see these things working together? Is it hard to find a balance between working on this variety of issues on which you've engaged?

LINDA:
[13:14] My organizing work is so interwoven with my identity that I feel like it's something that I carry with me wherever I go. But I think that in thinking about my role as a lawyer versus my role as an activist and organizer, it comes down to different roles in a movement. As an ACLU attorney, I think that we believe very strongly that we should be supporting communities that are affected by injustice. And our role as an attorney is very specific to the tools and mechanisms that we have as lawyers. And so as a lawyer, you're thinking about building legal cases and you're thinking about building legal strategies. But as an organizer and activist, you're thinking about building power and creating change. And so the biggest impact that Tsuru for Solidarity has had on me as a lawyer is that it really informs my work by reminding me and grounding me in the truth that we need to be guided by communities. We need to be led by movements and led by the voices of those who are impacted by the issues that we're fighting.

EMERSON:
[14:19] Your passion is obvious and it's inspiring, and I also am struck by the fact that you said that your activism and your identity are inextricably linked. And as a person of color also at the ACLU working on these issues that are a vital and personal importance, I wonder how you found that experience of having to bring your identity to your work in a way that some of our colleagues might not necessarily have to.

LINDA:
[14:43] One of the reasons why Tsuru for Solidarity is so meaningful to me is because it provides a really critical opportunity for healing and building community and not just repairing the harm that's been inflicted within the Japanese American community, but also building coalition across different communities and then doing that I have found that I am able to repair a lot of my own internalized trauma that's been handed down to me and so, and so I say that because this work is really healing. It's really transformative. When you are a person of color or you are a person who holds an identity or many identities that either make you vulnerable or have caused you to be marginalized in some way, it is imperative that you're building community and that you're also reaching out to the people that you work with to make sure that they're OK and in turn make sure that you're OK.

EMERSON:
[15:47] It's really compelling to hear you talking about the healing impact of this activism. And I'm curious if your relationship to your own family history has changed. When you look back on those conversations with your grandmother. Do you feel differently about them than you did a few years ago?

LINDA:
[16:03] I don't know that I feel differently, but I feel like I'm able to have conversations with my grandmother that I wasn't able to have at that time. In doing this work, in a strange way, I feel like I'm able to have conversations with my grandmother where I am telling her, “What happened to you was wrong. And it wasn't your fault. And I will do whatever I can to make sure that nothing like this happens to anyone ever again.” And so in that sense, it does really keep me connected to my family history.

I will say also this activism and the mobilization of the Japanese American community has really created the space for a lot of conversations that happen with my family that we weren't able to have before. And in doing so, think about, well, what is our job now? What is our role now as Japanese Americans? How can we use the moral authority that we have from our experience and the privilege that we have today to really fight what's going on?

EMERSON:
[17:08] Well you talked about the healing impact and the positive impact uniting as a Japanese American community can be. But I also know that one of the newest targets for Tsuru for Solidarity is another Japanese American who's actually holding a really unfortunate position in this whole corporate incarceration complex.

LINDA:
[17:27] Yes. So Jennifer Nakamoto is the CEO of a contractor named the Nakamoto Group, and the Nakamoto Group provides inspections for ICE detention facilities and they have a well-documented history of sweeping violations and abuses under the rug for ICE and literally profiting off of detention facilities at the expense of immigrant lives. And when Congress investigated the Nakamoto group for these violations, Jennifer Nakamoto invoked her own family history of incarceration during World War II to justify her complicity and to justify her actions. And when Tsuru for Solidarity realized that, we were enraged. Because that history that she's invoking it doesn't just belong to her, that history belongs to our community. And that trauma belongs to our community. And so in response to that, Tsuru for Solidarity joined with 18 Million Rising in creating a petition to call on Jennifer Nakamoto to make a public apology to the communities that she's harmed and to withdraw her bid for a contract with ICE going forward. And we received nearly eight thousand signatures in support of that petition, and we attempted to deliver it last November to the Nakamoto Group and we were rejected. They refused to accept our petition.

EMERSON:
[18:57] Wow well, I mean, as you said, intergenerational trauma is real. And it's so tragic when it's expressed in this way. Of course, the overall story in terms of immigrant detention is not a good one. There are huge challenges ahead. What's next?

LINDA:
[19:20] Since we organized these actions across the country, we realized the power of our voice and we realized how necessary it was to be building coalition with these communities. And we have decided we want to continue this movement and we want to stay a part of this. And so the big action that we have coming up is we're currently organizing a national action to close the camps in Washington, DC for this June in 2020. It's June 5 through 7. And we plan on bringing 125,000 paper origami cranes...

EMERSON:
Wow.

LINDA:
...or tsuru to the White House. And we are organizing those in coalition with immigrant rights organizations and other directly impacted communities to really show up and say that we will not stand by while this nation repeats its history.

EMERSON:
[20:11] And on Korematsu Day, what can our listeners do? What can we do to help be in solidarity, not only with Tsuru for Solidarity with also with a number of other groups that are also advocating for more humane treatment of immigrants?

LINDA:
For the Japanese American community. Korematsu Day really recognizes and celebrates are community heroes who participated in different acts of resistance. And so the best way for listeners to support our community and to support other communities who are facing these attacks is to resist through whatever that looks like for you. There are so many organizations who are providing services directly to immigrants who are being targeted. And so, of course, there's ways to donate to those organizations.

Another important thing I think is to take the time to understand the way that this country has treated immigrants and other people of marginalized identities, and to understand that there is a pattern here that there is a deep history of this country inflicting harm on people that it deems not worthy of being here. And one way to learn more about the history is, of course, learning about the Japanese American history in this country. I think it’s a history that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in our education system and there are a lot of resources out there to really help inform listeners on what that looks like.

EMERSON:
[21:43] Linda Morris, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us. And for also being such an inspiring presence at the ACLU and in our community more broadly.

LINDA:
[21:53] Thank you, Emerson.

EMERSON:
Thanks very much for listening. If you'd like to hear more conversations like this one, please be sure to subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review the show. We really appreciate the feedback. ‘Till next week, peace.

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