In the News: From Internment to Advocacy, One Family's Journey

By: Lisa Hasegawa, Executive Director at National CAPACD
From: NBC News

I remember my 94-year-old grandmother, Mary Masako Kanase, standing with tears in her eyes, reading the inscription on the stone memorial at the Japanese-American internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas this past October. She held my hand and said to me, "I'm so glad people remember.


My grandmother, mother – Joyce Kuniko Hasegawa, and I made this pilgrimage together. Three generations of women looked across the empty stretch of field where hundreds of barracks once stood. Here, my family lived behind barbed wire. Here, they fought to stay together. And here, their lives – like hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans at the time – were forever changed.
 

They were ultimately deported from the U.S., their country of birth, because of their race. The trip back to the camp gave my grandmother some closure. A part of her life had been validated. But it left me deeply saddened because our country still has so much further to go to address racial injustices.
 
I am the proud descendant of early-1900s immigrants to this country. My paternal grandmother was a picture bride. Her husband was a farmworker. My maternal grandmother was a garment and domestic worker. Her husband was an auto mechanic and gardener.
 
Executive Order 9066 was signed in February 1942 and resulted in the internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. My mother's family was forced to sell their home and farm in Fresno, California in a matter of days. They were first detained at the Fresno Assembly Center, where my mother was born, then moved by train across the country to Jerome, Arkansas. My mother was only a few days old.
 
Rumors were flying about what the U.S. government was going to do with internees and my grandfather believed that his 80-year-old mother, an "Issei," or first-generation immigrant from Japan, would be deported. He made the rational decision to renounce his citizenship so he could be deported along with his mother.
 
When asked a series of "loyalty questions,” by the U.S. Government, he instructed my grandmother to answer "no" so that they could be deported as a family. His plan didn’t work.
 
They were deemed "disloyal,” so my grandfather was separated from his family and held first at a high security camp at Tule Lake, California, then at the Fort Lincoln prison in Bismark, North Dakota.
 
In 1945, they were all deported to Japan, where my mother spent her childhood. Fifteen years later, a class action lawsuit restored their citizenship, (McGrath v. Abo) finding that many had renounced under wartime duress, allowing my family to move back to the U.S. But their journey up to that point could not be undone. My family had been unjustly imprisoned because of their race. They were already poor, but the U.S. government’s actions forced them to sell all their assets. They were deprived of the life opportunities they were working so hard to achieve. Their economic and social status was dramatically changed.

The pilgrimage to Jerome gave me new perspective and purpose for the work I do today as an advocate for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. From 1999 to 2001, I had the privilege of serving as the Community Liaison at the White House Initiative on AAPIs, working with federal agencies to improve quality of life where they are underserved. It was deeply meaningful to me that this Initiative and my role were created by Executive Order 13125, the first executive order pertaining to Asian Americans since the infamous 1942 order that resulted in the internment camps.

Today, in my job with the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, I advocate for programs and policies that promote economic vitality. We are tackling the dramatic growth in the number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders living in poverty since the recession. We lift up the needs of low-income Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and work in solidarity with African American, Latino and Native American organizations on issues of common cause.

This month marks the 15-year anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 13125, which created the White House Initiative and President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. I'm happy to report that it remains a vital effort. The foundation laid by the first Executive Director, the dynamic Shamina Singh, is built upon today by the capable Kiran Ahuja. Every day the Initiative chips away at institutional barriers facing communities of color and educates federal officials about the stunning diversity among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
 
Much has been accomplished, yet there’s so much more to do.
 
Also this month, we also marked the end of an era. As I sat writing this essay, I was brokenhearted to learn of the passing of Yuri Kochiyama, long-time racial and social justice activist. She was also incarcerated in Jerome, Arkansas with my mother's family and has been a personal inspiration and hero of mine since I learned about her incredible life in an Asian-American Studies class at UCLA. I had the honor of meeting her several times and her words always inspired me. It seems fitting to recall them now.

She once said, "Our ultimate objective in learning about anything is to try to create and develop a more just society.” My journey with my mother and grandmother to Jerome deepened my personal connection and commitment to issues beyond the Japanese American community, such as the post-9/11 discrimination faced by South Asians, Arabs and Muslims, anti-immigrant sentiment against Latinos, or the income inequalities and disparate rates of incarceration faced by African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians.
 
In Yuri's words, "As Asian Americans, we must understand that we are connected with all people -- beyond race, beyond color, beyond ethnicity, beyond class."
 
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Lisa Hasegawa is a fourth-generation, Japanese American and the Executive Director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. She lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland with her husband, Sandy Lee.