Immigration then and now, A personal connection

I am a Japanese-American, a grandchild of an “illegal immigrant,” and I sympathize with the immigrants today who are targeted with hateful rhetoric that assumes they are rapists, drug dealers and terrorists.

Today’s hateful words against immigrants are reminiscent of the rhetoric toward Japanese immigrants in the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the forced evacuation and incarceration by the U.S. government of more than 110,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent during World War II, more than 70,000 of whom were U.S. citizens.

Japanese and Mexican immigrants have more than hateful rhetoric linking our histories. Both experienced the same pingpong effect of politics, in turns being welcomed and rejected.

America welcomed Japanese immigrants after Chinese laborers fell victim to “Yellow peril” paranoia. However, Japanese “Yellow peril” fear soon led to the U.S.-Japan Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, and Japan no longer granted its laborers emigration to America.

Without the Japanese labor force, America encouraged Mexican laborers to come here, and during World War II the Bracero program began. It lasted more than 20 years.

The geopolitical policies not only linked the histories of Japanese and Mexican immigrant groups, it also affected my family’s history. One of my grandfathers was an illegal immigrant. In the early 1900s, he crossed the border from Mexico to work in America. But he wasn’t Mexican; he was Japanese. Due to the Gentlemen’s Agreement, his entry to America had been denied, so he sailed to Mexico and then crossed the border into California.

Intolerance and discrimination remain problems for people of color and for anyone different from the majority, including recent immigrants. Those undocumented are particularly targeted with intimidation such as increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity. Since January, there have been hundreds of ICE arrests in Northern California, with many of those arrested having no criminal convictions. More unnerving is ICE activity not making the news, such as a report in the community of a father who was arrested leaving a store in Petaluma and jailed by ICE, which is reminiscent of the sudden individual arrests of Japanese community leaders shortly after Pearl Harbor, months before the mass incarceration of the Japanese-American population.

It is easy to demonize those who look and sound different from us, but the newest immigrants have the same dreams and hopes as those who have come before, leaving a homeland situation that does not offer a future and might even be life threatening, searching for a better life for oneself and family.

The national Japanese American Citizens League, the oldest and largest Asian-American civil rights organization in the U.S., commented on the president’s State of the Union address: “Although stated in measured tones, there is no mistaking the continued attack on immigrants from President Trump. … Our country has a long history of pitting our nativist tendencies against the most recent immigrant group. … The President prefaced his remarks about immigration by painting a picture of immigrants as pouring into the country illegally, taking low paying jobs from Americans, and committing violent crimes. … JACL deplores the President’s use of demagoguery to paint immigrants as people to be feared.”

As a descendant of immigrants, including an illegal immigrant, I, Phyllis Tajii, along with the Sonoma County chapter of JACL, join the national JACL in rejecting the idea that immigrants should be feared. I hope that Americans can look beyond differences to see fellow human beings who have endured incredible hardship and sacrifice for the chance to contribute to our society and pursue the American Dream.

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