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Satsuki Ina knows what U.S. government detention is like. In fact, that’s where she was born, as part of the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Now, she’s a psychotherapist who’s studied the effects of detention on migrant kids.
“I know what’s happening to these children will have a lasting impact on their mental health. Indefinite detention is a form of torture,” said Ina, who grew up in the Tule Lake Segregation Center, a maximum security internment camp in Newell city, California. She’s one of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans the U.S. detained.
When the Trump administration announced its plan this week to turn a former WWII internment camp in Oklahoma into an emergency shelter for migrant children, many Japanese-Americans worried history was repeating itself. They’d heard about the effects indefinite detention can have on people, especially children — and some, like Ina, lived it.
Research has already shown that detention makes children particularly vulnerable to a host of psychological issues including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit disorder. And lawyers and therapists who work with child migrants have said those problems are exacerbated by the “prison-like” conditions of temporary emergency shelters.
“It’s exactly the same rhetoric — ‘They’re a threat to national security’ — without any evidence,” Ina said. “We want to remind America that this horrible thing that took place during World War II is being repeated.”
Fort Sill, an Army base in Lawton City, Oklahoma, held approximately 700 Japanese-Americans during WWII. Detainees slept in four-person tents and were under constant surveillance by armed guards. During the war, the base was one of more than 70 sites across the country where Japanese-Americans were detained. Fort Sill was also used as a prison for the Apache leader Geronimo in 1894. More than 300 other Apaches, including women and children, were also held there.
Now, part of the facility will soon become a temporary influx shelter to house 1,400 unaccompanied child immigrants. The rest of the facility will continue to be an active Army base staffed with more than 20,000 personnel. The migrant children won’t come into contact with the military, Department of Health and Human Services officials have said.
“What I see repeated over and over again is the government’s use of euphemisms and falsehoods,” said Tom Ikeda, the founder and executive director of Denshō, an organization that collects testimonies from internment camp survivors. His parents and grandparents were also interned during WWII.
“The official name for the concentration camps that held Japanese-Americans during World War II was ‘war relocation centers,’” Ikeda said. “When we hear the government today sugarcoat what they're doing, it's a pattern that we've seen throughout the history of this country.”
“I know what’s happening to these children will have a lasting impact on their mental health."
The Trump administration has increasingly relied on influx shelters — like the one in Homestead, Florida, and the now-shuttered “tent city” shelter in Tornillo, Texas — to house unaccompanied child migrants until they can be released to a sponsor, like their parent or another family member. The administration has said it needs to use unlicensed shelters to address the recent influx of migrants, which has led to overcrowding at licensed facilities. In May, Customs and Border Protection apprehended more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors, a 29 percent increase from the previous month.
But unlike licensed shelters — which are typically operated by nonprofit organizations with contracts with the government — temporary shelters don’t adhere to state licensing requirements. Last week, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is charged with caring for unaccompanied migrant children, said it would no longer fund certain nonessential services in licensed or unlicensed shelters, including daily schooling, outdoor playtime, and legal services.
“The state of emergency that was declared at the border earlier this year has managed to both help generate [a state of exception] and to take advantage of this special status to make policy and budgetary shifts working in opposition to any real solution to the problem,” Andrea Pitzer, a journalist and the author of "One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps," told VICE News. “Like the earlier wartime internment, this detention will only do harm to the people detained and does not advance public safety.”
But the completion of Trump’s plan wouldn’t be the first time migrant children have been detained at the former Japanese internment camp. The Obama administration turned three military bases, including Fort Sill, into emergency shelters for child migrants in 2014.
At the time, Oklahoma’s congressional delegation opposed the administration’s decision. Republican Sen. James Inhofe, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Obama administration’s use of the base would “impede on the base’s ability to train new recruits.” But now, Inhofe and other Oklahoma Republicans have said they support Trump’s plan to do the same.
A “shameful and immoral” practice
In addition to working as a child psychotherapist, Ina regularly visits and interviews detained immigrant children. She, along with other mental health researchers, believes the psychological effects of migrant detention are similar to those experienced by Japanese-Americans incarcerated during the war.
“My oldest brother was born in the Topaz, Utah, camp,” Ina said. “Then she [my mother] got pregnant with me. Later, I asked why she got pregnant again, and she told me it was because she heard families with more children were less likely to be separated.”
Most of the men and women who grew up in internment camps would now be at least 75. And Ikeda, who has interviewed hundreds of them through his work at Denshō, has also seen the harmful effects of their childhoods firsthand.
“I’ve interviewed men and women who are now in their late 70s and 80s who were children at the camps, and you can see the suppression of their emotions as the result of something they had no control over,” he said.
At the temporary shelter in Homestead, Florida, for example, lawyers suing the Trump administration over conditions at the facility recounted signs of anxiety, depression, and even self-harm among the migrant kids housed there.
“We’ve already heard of psychological issues among children in these shelters,” said Norman Mineta, 87, a former Democratic member of the House of Representatives who also served as the Secretary of Transportation during George W. Bush’s administration. “The forced evacuation and internment of those of Japanese ancestry was a gross violation of the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.”
Mineta, who was interned at a camp in Wyoming as a child, described detaining migrant children for extended periods of time without due process as a similar violation of their rights.
“Our only crime was that we looked like those who attacked Pearl Harbor. No charges were ever filed against us. No trials,” he told VICE News.
California Democrat Rep. Mark Takano is also the child of Japanese-American victims of the government’s internment policy. His grandparents lost their property during the time they were detained; his father, a child at the time, was burned during his time in the camps.
“Families like mine still bear the scars from the suffering they underwent when they were held in Japanese internment camps during World War II. It is shameful and immoral for our government to be holding immigrant children seeking asylum in those very same facilities that caused so much suffering,” Takano told VICE News.
“Military bases, makeshift camps, and federal prison cells are not appropriate places to house people who are coming to this country seeking asylum, especially children,” he added.
A long list of accusations
The Trump administration has repeatedly come under fire for expanding the use of unlicensed shelters for child migrants. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has contracts with nonprofit organizations that operate approximately 168 licensed shelters in 23 states.
Administration officials have warned that these shelters are nearly at capacity, largely because of a surge in recent arrivals at the border, which prompted a need for unlicensed emergency shelters like the one that will soon open at Fort Sill.
But attorneys who work with child migrants have previously told VICE News that licensed shelters are full because the government has drawn out the process through which children are reunited with their sponsors — not just because more children are showing up at the border. They’ve described these unlicensed shelters as not only inadequate for children but three times more expensive to run than licensed shelters.
Although Fort Sill has been used to detain children and families in the past, Ina said she wants to ensure that never happens again. She’s a member of the Japanese-American activist group Tsuru for Solidarity, a Japanese-American group planning a rally outside the Army base on June 22.
In March, the group marched from the Crystal City Family Internment Camp, a Texas facility that held more than 4,000 detainees during World War II, to the South Texas Family Residential Center, a family detention center in Dilley, Texas. Ina said the group, which includes internment survivors who are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, will bring thousands of paper cranes to the base.
“People have said it’s not the same [as what happened to us] because we’re American citizens,” Ina said. “But to be criminalized and imprisoned while being innocent — it’s the same situation.”
Cover image: Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif. during a Public Works and Transportation hearing on April 2, 1992. (Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)